Broke KC charter school leaves teachers without final paycheck

Teachers at the recently shuttered Derrick Thomas Academy charter school haven’t been paid, and no one seems to know when — or if — they ever will be.

“There are limited, if any, options that Derrick Thomas Academy has to help the teachers,” said James Tippin, a lawyer representing the school. “Believe me, no one on the Derrick Thomas board of directors is happy about this.”

The money that might have covered teacher salaries is tied up in court over a dispute among the school, the company contracted to manage it and the company that issued bonds for the school’s launch.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City, which had sponsored the charter school at 201 E. Armour Blvd. since it opened in 2001, has no financial responsibility for the school or its debt. The academy announced last fall it would close after UMKC refused to renew its charter, citing poor management and low test scores. The school has since been overseen by an interim board.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has been named in legal action to garnish more than $2.2 million that the management company, EdisonLearning Inc., says it is owed.

Derrick Thomas Academy, now locked up behind a heavy black gate, also owes a substantial amount of money to the bondholder for the school, Lord Abbett.

Jim Sansevero, spokesman for Lord Abbett, said the school has defaulted on bond payments and “$10 million is at risk.” The school used its building to secure the bonds.

The state education department, which funds the public charter school, sent its final per-pupil payment for the 2012-2013 school year — more than $1 million — to Jackson County Circuit Court.

“We have to comply with the court order,” said department spokeswoman Sarah Potter.

Teachers, who requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their search for new jobs, said school administrators had promised that all three dozen or so of them, plus the support staff, would be paid.

But when payday came last Friday, “there was no money in my account,” said a teacher who had taught several years at Derrick Thomas.

She said teachers were expecting the final two weeks of pay and at the last minute have been left unable to pay their own household bills.

“It’s like a slap in the face,” she said.

A Friday afternoon memo from the academy announced there was no money available “because of a dispute between the bondholder for DTA and EdisonLearning. Each is claiming that it is entitled to the last payment and DESE, in an abundance of caution, has paid it to the Court so the Court can decide who is the legitimate owner.”

That memo also said that if the money went to the bondholder, Lord Abbett had promised to help Derrick Thomas pay teachers, but “DTA neither controls, nor knows when the Court will make its ruling on who is entitled to the June payment.”