North Broward Preparatory Schools, based in Coconut Creek, is receiving an “F” from parents fuming over a legal assault the school has launched to collect nearly $200,000 in tuition the school claims they owe.
The dispute centers on the for-profit school’s iron-clad admissions contract that parents call “unconscionable,” their attorneys call ”draconian.” but the school’s president calls “prudent.”
Though the contract is similar to those that private schools routinely require parents to sign, no other area school has pursued payments so aggressively, seeking full tuition from parents who pull their kids out before the start of the school year, or from those whose children were expelled.
In the last year, the school has sued nearly a dozen parents for contract debts. In one case, it even repossessed a parent’s Mercedes-Benz.
NBPS President Philip Morgaman defends the lawsuits, calling them a “prudent” business decision designed to ensure the financial survival of the school. But many of those who have been sued say they would rather pay their lawyers than give the school a dime because of the way administrators have treated them.
North Broward’s aggressive posture includes the hiring of Noam Cohen, a Miami attorney whose website reads “When it comes to collections, we are aggressive and persistent.”
The school also recently hired Kekst & Company in New York City, a public relations firm specializing in crisis communications and known for handling the early days of the Enron fiasco, issues related to the anti-anthrax drug Cipro, and Kmart’s bankruptcy.
STRING OF SUITS
John Wirt is the most recent defendant in the string of lawsuits filed by the school in Broward Circuit Court.
The lawsuit, filed in February, alleges that he and his wife. Pamela, owe nearly $20,000 in tuition for the 2004-05 school year But the Wirts’ sons, Alexander and Bobby, never attended the school that year because the family moved back to Illinois before school began.
Wirt, a lawyer, said he read the contract and told school administrators he didn’t want to sign it because his family might be moving. In a countersuit Wirt filed last month against NBPS that seeks punitive damages, he claims school officials encouraged him to sign the agreement to guarantee that if the Wirts didn’t move, their sons would still have a place there.
The counterclaim alleges fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and violation of Florida’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Wirt says he was assured by William Spaice. the schools’ assistant headmaster, that they were “very understanding” of families that moved out of state and that the contract was simply a formality to discourage parents and students from accepting entry to several schools and then picking one over the other.
“He said what we are concerned about here is people picking vanilla over chocolate ・ picking one school over the other – but if people move away, it’s not a problem,” Wirt said
Confident he would not be held liable, Wirt said he signed. But when his family decided to move in July 2004, he says the school changed its tune.
“Stacey [Gordon) told me the school had a mandate to sue parents,” Wirt said, referring to the school’s in-house attorney.
In an interview, Spruce said the school can’t guarantee parents a slot without a contract and that a case ends up in court “only after repeated attempts by the school to try to work something out and being rejected or ignored along the way.”
At the time the Wirts signed the contract, it required parents to pay full tuition unless they notified the school by certified or registered mail, on or before June 1, that the student would not be attending the fall school term. That date has since been moved up to April 1 to coincide more closely with the signing of teacher contracts, according to Morgaman.
“There comes a time at which we plan for the next school year,” Morgaman said. “We try to coincide people’s enrollment obligations becoming fixed at a time when we are also fixing all of the expenditures and plans for the next school year.”
Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, which NBPS is a member of, defended the school’s actions.
“You can’t plan for a school year based on a certain number of kids signed up. and then have four or five leave at $10,000 a pop. Then you have a big hole in your budget” said Bliss, whose organization provides member schools with model contracts to make sure they are written properly.
Mitchell Adler, a Fort Lauderdale contract lawyer not involved in any of the litigation, was asked to review the school’s contract. He called it “onerous.”
“It’s a pretty school-oriented contract. It looks like a difficult contract to get out of.” he said. “A case like this will have to go through the court system.”
Morgaman defends the contract, saying its purpose is “designed to make sure the parent has a place for their children in the school that they have chosen, and to make sure the school has tuition to run.”
Morgaman contends that if someone signs a contract because they want to make sure their child has a slot “it means they wanted us to refuse someone else the opportunity to have that slot.”
If a student’s slot can be filled, then the obligation will be waived, says Morgaman. But filling a slot is not simply filling a seat in a particular grade. The incoming student would have to fit the outgoing student’s profile, taking the same classes that child was scheduled to take.
In the past two years, court claims against NBPS parents total close to $170,000.
“I am sure [Philip] Morgaman has noble and good intentions, but I think he is being misguided by investors. He has this pressure to raise money to get investors to go on this buying spree, and that has led him astray.” said Wirt.
Last year, Morgaman launched a $500 million international venture to acquire as many as 20 schools worldwide under the Meritas Schools title in the next five years.
WILLING TO NEGOTIATE
Morgaman said he is willing to work with anybody financially as long as they want to work with the school
“We are not a school that pulls people out of class and says goodbye when they can’t meet their financial obligations.” said Morgaman. ”It’s only under the most extreme circumstances we will do that.”
But parents say they can’t even get the school to return phone calls, let alone work with them. “They won’t talk to you. After I sent them a letter, they wouldn’t even take a phone call,” said Richard Higgins of Lighthouse Point, whose son attended Lighthouse Point Academy, an NBPS school for children with learning disabilities, for four years.
He said he personally delivered a letter before the contract deadline, June 1. 2004, telling the school his son would not be returning.
NOT CERTIFIED MAIL
The school claims that because the letter was not sent certified, as required by its contract, Higgins owes $18,950 plus interest. “l think it’s reprehensible,” said Mark Schecter, Higgins’ Fort Lauderdale attorney. Morgaman called Higgins’ claim “suspect.”
“We have never received a notice within the time period and then rejected it because it wasn’t sent certified mail. But if somebody comes a year later with a photocopy of a letter they say they sent, and nobody ever saw, then the letter is suspect, yeah it is,” Morgaman said. Abbey Freiberg of Boca Raton is seething at her plight. After NBPS sued her, they tried to impound her car. Freiberg said she was walking out of a grocery story when a police officer said he was confiscating her 2003 Mercedes- Benz because the school had put a lien on it. The car, she said, was not even hers, but belonged to the feds.
Freiberg’s dilemma began in 2004 when her husband, Irving, pleaded guilty to defrauding investors out of more than $20 million. As part of the plea deal, he agreed to forfeit more than $3.5 million in cash and assets including his mansion, several cars and jewelry.
At that point. Abbey Freiberg said she notified NBPS that she no longer could afford to send her son, who suffers from a learning disability, to the school.
“When they got my letter, they told me they will see me in court,” said Freiberg. “We have nothing. I don’t have 2 cents to my name.”
Freiberg said she had a daughter at St Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, and they not only didn’t require her to pay tuition but refunded her deposit.
Morgaman said impounding the car was simply a sound business decision.
“If we have somebody who has not attempted to work with us and who was driving around in a $70,000 automobile, I think it’s prudent to pursue the matter and do what you need to do.” he said. He added that the idea was simply to record a judgment so that if in the future the family has money, the school will be able to collect. “When I am doing that, I am being a trustee on behalf of these kids and I think it’s appropriate,” he said. In December 2005, a Broward judge entered a final default judgment against the Freibergs for nearly $26,000.
Anna Korol says she would rather pay her attorney than pay the school the $17,426 it says she owes. She claims her son was expelled in November for failing to tell school officials that some of his fellow students were selling drugs. She says her son was singled out and that the student selling the drugs was allowed to stay. “They are suing the parents for the whole year tuition, which to me is an absurdity,” said Steven Warm, Korol’s Boca Raton attorney.
Warm also questions the legitimacy of the contract which he calls “draconian.”
“Take a look at the scope and breadth of that language and how many of your rights they presume to take away,” Warm said. “In theory you can put your kid in on Monday and they can say they don’t like the way he parts his hair and throw him out Monday afternoon and you still owe them the whole year’s tuition.”