High school band might lose $300,000 for Hawaii trip

Friday, April 27, 2012 | 11:36 a.m. CDT

WILLARD — Officials at a southwest Missouri high school have contacted law enforcement, including the FBI, after a company that has taken more than $300,000 for the school band's summer trip to Hawaii stopped communicating with the school, officials said.

The Willard High School band had been planning for a trip to Hawaii after raising more than $300,000. But Chris Church, band director, said the company that was organizing the trip recently dropped all communication with the school.

"We are working on what to do next and what our next step will be as a school district and band program," according to a letter Church sent Wednesday evening to parents. "The harsh reality is the band trip to Hawaii may not occur this June."

The award-winning Willard High School band has performed at parades and festivals across the U.S. and in multiple foreign countries. Every four years, a big trip overseas is planned.

Superintendent Kent Medlin said Thursday that "in excess of $300,000" has been paid toward the trip for 240 students plus band staff and family chaperones. It was to include at least three performances, including one aboard the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor, and cost about $500,000.

Medlin said the district has contacted law enforcement in an effort to speed up the process of getting answers. They still hope the trip can be salvaged.

"The best-case scenario is that the trip will go off without a hitch, as expected," he said.

Church also told band parents that the district is working to determine its next step, and the district is "taking steps to minimize the financial loss to families and the band."

Church said the company, Performing Hawaii Tours, has organized previous Willard band trips, but stopped returning phone calls and emails a few weeks ago. The district also recently learned that the tour operator is involved in a family and business dispute, The Springfield News-Leader reported.

In his letter, Church said the tour operator, Calliope "Ope" Saaga, had apologized for his tardiness in responding April 9 and shortly thereafter and that the district learned Saaga was "in the midst of a family and business dispute."

Attempts to contact the company were unsuccessful Friday. An online contact form has been disabled, and a recording on the published phone number for the company said it was no longer accepting calls.

Willard Police Chief Tom McClain said that because the issue involves an out-of-state company, the FBI was brought in to help.

"Potentially, it is a very serious situation," McClain said.

Willard officials also said a Fort Smith, Ark., school band had also recently paid half of the $480,000 cost of a Hawaii trip before communication ceased.

Zena Featherston Marshall, spokeswoman for the Fort Smith district, said she hopes some of the money spent, including deposits for hotel rooms, can be recovered quickly. She wouldn't say what steps the district would take for the rest.

"We are exploring the options that are available," she said.

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