What started with the December announcement of the resignation of headmaster Dee Corn at Columbia Independent School has evolved into a crisis that some parents believe threatens the future of the fledgling private school.
Parents of students at the school are in an uproar over actions taken by the CIS Board of Directors, which they say is hurting enrollment by making major decisions about the search for a new headmaster, the curriculum and the school’s scholarship program without their input.
The wall between parents and the board is a problem, said Stan Dorst, who moved to Columbia from Pittsburgh in the summer of 2000 and has children in the sixth and eighth grades at CIS.
“We don’t have any options for direct contact with the board; they meet separately,” Dorst said last month. “Before all of this happened, even Dee was not being told when the meetings were. She had to find out from someone else.”
“The school is wonderful, and the kids really love it, and I want it to continue to work. But the power structure is so out of hand,” Dorst said. “I have two worries. My first worry is that the board will continue to refuse to communicate about what the issues are and what their plans are. My other is that a lot of the parents will take their kids out.”
Jeff Smith, a charter member of the CIS board, confirmed “the school’s been having difficulties, and part of the problem is raising money. I think that if we were in the black a bit more, maybe this situation wouldn’t be happening.”
Indeed, tax records provided by a CIS parent show that between 1997 and 2001, the school received multiple loans from board members totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Loans have been made to the organization from four of the members of the board of directors,” reads a statement in a 2001 Form 990 filed in September 2002. “The balance outstanding on these loans as of June 30, 2002, is $380,443.”
After a planned March meeting between parents and the board fell through, parents said, board members received repeated requests to schedule another one. They finally acquiesced by calling a meeting last week.
CIS parent Janet Vaslow said, although the meeting was intended to restore faith in the school, it did more harm than good.
“The board raised more questions by having the meeting than they solved,” Vaslow said. “It is very apparent that they’ve labeled the parents who have questions as being the source of the rumors and causing the problems.”
But Maggie Dorst, Stan Dorst’s wife, said the meeting made her feel better “because the board was taking action to communicate with the community.” She thought most of the concerns now stem from the board’s lack of direction.
“They don’t have a Plan A, Plan B or an outline, and that’s what people are wanting to get reassured (about),” she said. “It’s the ambivalence in the air.”
Getting to the root of the parents’ worries is difficult because many who were contacted said they are afraid to talk, citing the influence board members have in Columbia. Some talked to the Missourian only through anonymous calls; one even deliberately called from a pay telephone.
Angst over the future of the school began on Dec. 3, when Corn announced her intention to resign as head of the school. She informed parents of her decision that same day through a letter that was upbeat in its description of the school’s status.
“I am announcing my decision to resign effective June 30, 2006 ...” Corn wrote. “Currently the goals provided to me by the Board are fulfilled.”
Parents became anxious, however, when they heard Corn might be leaving earlier than originally indicated. Board President John Thompson confirmed their fears in an April 13 letter that said Corn would leave at the end of this school year.
“The Board and Dee have agreed to accelerate the originally stated time frame for her departure,” Thompson wrote. “We expect to name an interim head of school for the 2004-2005 school year, and hire a permanent head of school based on the results of a nation-wide search in time for the 2005-2006 school year.”
Neither Corn nor the board members would talk about the circumstances surrounding her departure. Corn has been the school’s headmaster since its inception in 1997.
Parents said that they’ve been left to wonder about the direction of the school. One primary concern is that, once Corn leaves, parents will have no ear in the administration.
“With Dee gone we’ve lost our insulation,” said one parent, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her child from problems at school. “We’re afraid we won’t have anyone to talk to. We knew that we could talk to her, and now we won’t have anyone.”
Vaslow said that fear was addressed last week. “We asked who we were supposed to talk to if we had problems because it had always been Dee,” she said. “They told us to talk to the teachers.”
Parents worry board members have failed to develop adequate criteria for Corn’s replacement.
“They wouldn’t even come up with a list of qualifications” at the meeting, Vaslow said. “They said they’d be looking for somebody that would be handling finances, handling day-to-day operations and not have as much interaction with the parents.”
A subcommittee of the board is conducting a national search. Thompson said that committee will identify three to five finalists who will meet with the board and some parents and teachers. “It’ll be a full interview process, and then the full board will vote for the final selection,” he said.
Several CIS parents expressed concern about enrollment, estimating at least one third of students in the upper school have enrolled in public schools for next year.
“Most of us have already enrolled our kids in public schools,” said the anonymous parent. “There are 23 students in the ninth grade, and I think most of them have enrolled elsewhere. If they’re going to lose some of us, they’ll lose all of us because the kids want to stay together.”
Thompson, however, predicted overall CIS enrollment will rise next school year. He said 200 applications are being processed but could not say what grade levels those students would attend.
There are about 185 students at CIS this year. Some of them say the atmosphere there is changing.
“It is going to be different in where the power is held in the school,” CIS freshman McKinsey Hulen said. “There’s been more board involvement in the school in things like admitting students for the next year.”
Some students formed an association to address their concerns, but parents said the board immediately ordered it disbanded.
“They said it was being destructive to the school,” Vaslow said.
Students in the association were primarily from lower high school grades because that group feels it will be most affected by any changes. “The juniors, seniors and sophomores haven’t been affected; it’s more of the freshman,” said junior Brenna Luchene-Cox.
Confusion over scholarship applications was one of the primary concerns expressed by students at last week’s meeting. Applications are processed through a third-party organization that determines how much financial aid each student should receive.
“There were kids there from ninth and 10th grade; one wanted to know who the third party would be that evaluates the scores of financial aid,” Vaslow said, adding that the answer to that question remains unclear.
That uncertainty, Vaslow said, causes people to worry the board might be too close to the scholarship process. She also cited parental concern that the school is distributing too much tuition assistance to younger students and shifting the school’s focus away from a college-prep mission.
Thompson addressed both concerns in his April 13 letter.
“We have, and always have, retained an independent third party to review these applications in an effort to protect and ensure the confidentiality of all records related to this process,” Thompson wrote. “We have not changed any aspect of this arrangement and will continue to operate in this same fashion in the future.”
“A school of our size should make assistance available to at least 25% of the entire student body at an average level of assistance equal to 15% of current levels of tuition,” he continued. “That is exactly how we will continue to offer scholarships to qualifying CIS families.”
The board has also created an oversight committee as a third tier in the admissions process. That group will meet with prospective students and their parents after the head of the school and the teachers have done so.
Despite the controversy, CIS parent Mark Farnen, who has been part of the school since its inception, said he still believes in its mission. Farnen also works for Woodruff Communications, the firm that handles public relations for the school.
“The school really emphasizes basic characteristics of humanity: Be honest, and do your best, be respectful, and do things for other people,” Farnen said.
Vaslow said the school continues to teach students well. “The faculty does a wonderful job, and education is going on every day at the school,” she said. But “the undercurrent is unhealthy for the school, it’s unhealthy for the community, and it’s unhealthy for the kids.”