RACINE — A local voucher school has not paid teachers in months and has lost nearly two-thirds of its students, staff said Wednesday.
St. John Fisher Academy, a private high school that opened in Racine last fall using state voucher money, has reportedly not paid staff members since March and has seen student enrollment dwindle from about 50 children to only 26, according to teachers who filed complaints this month with the state Department of Workforce Development.
Teachers have continued to show up for work each day despite going without pay from mid-December to February and from March to now, they said.
“We have tried to give (school leaders) the benefit of the doubt,” said science teacher Scott Schroder, one of those who filed a complaint. But he and other teachers can no longer survive without their wages. “My wife has a good job but we’re still behind on our bills. What a strain on the family.”
The staff payment and student enrollment issues follow a rocky start last fall when St. John Fisher struggled to find a suitable building and then failed to get Milwaukee Archdiocese approval as a Catholic school because area Catholic high schools already existed. The lack of approval meant St. John Fisher was technically “in the Catholic tradition,” not Catholic.
That distinction lost St. John Fisher hundreds of thousands of dollars and is one factor that led staff to go unpaid, said St. John Fisher Headmaster Dave Tomasiewicz.
St. John Fisher expected $750,000 from two foundations but monetary offers fell through when the school did not get archdiocesan approval, Tomasiewicz said. That made the school rely more on state voucher payments, which Tomasiewicz said in September should cover $5,500 in tuition for each of the school’s low-income kids, 51 of 52 total students.
But there was a problem with the voucher payments too, because Tomasiewicz missed checking some boxes on an online state student enrollment form, he said.
That meant St. John Fisher initially received state money for only 17 voucher students. Tomasiewicz said the state corrected the error and eventually paid the school for the additional students.
But state records show St. John Fisher never got paid for 51 voucher students because, even when figures were corrected, Tomasiewicz in September reported only 28 total students, including 25 voucher students, and in January reported only 35 students, including 28 voucher students.
The school has this year received $170,713 in state voucher money, including $45,094 sent to St. John Fisher, 2405 Northwestern Ave., on Wednesday as its last of four annual voucher payments, said John Johnson, spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the voucher program.
St. John Fisher is current on all bills except for staff paychecks, Tomasiewicz said Wednesday. Because he and the school’s dean chose not to pay themselves this year, the incoming voucher money will be used to pay teachers today, Tomasiewicz said.
But teachers, who have heard that promise before, remain doubtful and upset, they said.
Teacher Schroder believes the lack of payment violates the signed job offers he and the other five teachers received in September. Schroder’s offer, which he says is identical to others’, included an annual salary of $30,000 in biweekly installments and eligibility for health benefits.
“Benefits were supposed to start October 1 of last year but we’ve had none,” Schroder said. “My family right now is not insured because I can’t afford the co-pay.”
Fellow teacher Katie Dalious has stayed on her parents’ health insurance and nearly depleted her savings to make rent and student loan payments, she said.
“The kids are the only reason I’m getting out of bed in the morning because it’s a hopeless situation at this point,” Dalious said.
Teachers should not have expected regular pay and benefits though, Tomasiewicz said, because the job offer was an “agreement” and not a “contract.”
“We told them from day one that there was a possibility that those contingencies might not be available,” he said. “We did work very, very hard to find an agency or a company that would provide us affordable insurance and for this year that was simply an impossibility.”
Schroder and Dalious filed complaints May 10 with DWD. A third complaint against the school was filed Feb. 20 by Eugene Haas, who claims the school owes him $13,309.12 for overseeing the lunch program, library and special projects.
In response to Haas’ complaint, Tomasiewicz wrote a letter to DWD stating Haas had no contract and was “essentially, a volunteer.”
The complaints are under investigation and in the meantime DWD has placed a lien on St. John Fisher’s assets, according to a May 25 DWD letter.
No state recourse
The lien and investigations come at the same time that St. John Fisher is planning an expansion to add middle schoolers next year. School officials are changing their fundraising strategy, considering a loan and working on “governmental programming,” Tomasiewicz said. He would not provide further details but did say he plans to employ nine teachers next year and already started interviewing.
“One of the reasons we came out now is we’re concerned about next year,” Dalious said. “If they don’t pay teachers, the kids could be interrupted mid-year. Also for the teachers being hired, I feel guilty not telling them.”
Even though St. John Fisher receives public voucher money from DPI, there’s little the state can do to keep the school from operating since it is technically a private business. DPI has no jurisdiction over whether staff gets paid and the agency cannot close a private school, Johnson said.
DPI could remove the school from the voucher program for failing to be financially viable, state law shows. But because state law does not require voucher schools to submit audited financial data until the September following a school year, St. John Fisher could not get barred from the program until after Sept. 1 and even then statutory requirements might not be met, Johnson said.