Westport is blessed with a number of excellent preschools.
Children here are taught, supported and nurtured in a variety of settings.
Landmark Academy is one of those. Teachers at the Burr Road preschool for children ages 1-5 — affiliated with the K-8 Ridgefield Academy — earn high marks from parents.
But more than half of those Westport families give administrators a failing grade.
The trouble began when COVID-19 hit. Like nearly every school, at every level, Landmark shut its doors, and pivoted to “remote learning.”
Now, a petition signed by over 50 families cites several areas of concern.
Parents claim that when they asked for partial tuition refunds due to the “general frustration or futility of distance learning” for their young children, they were told “falsely that each of us were outliers against the tide of otherwise satisfied Landmark parents, and that each of us were ‘the only one to ask for a refund.'”
They say that Landmark was “not willing” to work with those who suffered significant pandemic-related financial hardship on tuition requests. Some already paid deposits for the 2020-21 year. They “signed up for a different experience” than they may have, they say — yet the school has refused to discuss refunds.
The parents say that they have accepted Landmark’s “significantly higher” tuition than surrounding preschools, because of its “higher quality and higher service.”
“It was thus a surprise and disappointment that we discovered other preschools were offering a more transparent, parent-friendly approach to the pandemic, while Landmark falsely told us at the time that no schools were offering refunds,” they say. The parents allege that at least 5 other Westport preschools offered partial or full refunds.
“We understand that this pandemic has presented Landmark with unprecedented difficulties,” they say.
“We wish to feel the sense of belonging and community at Landmark that we felt before the pandemic. While Landmark is educating our 2, 3 4, 5-year-olds how to work together with one another, we first ask the school to work together with the families.”
But that petition is not their only cause for concern.
The school received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $1-2 million, listed in the Westport PPP database. Some parents call that “double-dipping,” alleging the school kept the loan, tuition and deposits.
Examining the 2018 Form 990 tax filing for Ridgefield Academy — Landmark’s owner — one parent discovered that the head of school made a total of $768,000. “In a time when many leaders take voluntary pay cuts to protect the business and customers, Landmark is not making any effort,” a parent says.
In addition, some parents say that other local preschools responded “more creatively, pragmatically or empathetically” to the pandemic, like delivering art supplies every 2 weeks, or acknowledging that distance learning through video was futile for young preschoolers.
I asked Landmark to respond to the parents’ concerns. Ridgefield Academy director of communications Kara Morgan said:
Like most non-profit independent schools, the school did not issue refunds on base tuition for remote learning but instead worked to deliver the best possible remote learning experience for the entire community. Our budget and expenses for the 2019-2020 academic year were already fully committed and the school had to account for increased operational costs in some areas around health & safety and the move to remote learning. The school did offer refunds for services that could not be rendered such as transportation fees, preschool lunch services, and camp deposits.
To our knowledge, no independent schools in our area have offered families tuition refunds. There are some nursery schools and daycare centers in the area that have offered refunds. Families who enrolled in the tuition refund insurance program that Landmark offers and choose to withdraw their children did receive tuition refunds through their policy.
All parents sign an enrollment agreement that clearly outlines our non-refundable deposit policy. This is consistent with the independent school model. However, if a family has chosen to withdraw their child from our program, we have offered to apply the deposit toward the tuition if they chose to return to our program at a later date.
She added that families experiencing financial hardship have been encouraged to reach out to the business office to discuss payment options. She said Landmark has extended payment schedules and increased financial aid.
As for the PPP loan, Morgan said those proceeds cannot be used for tuition refunds. The loan was used to pay teachers’ salaries and other allowable expenses, enabling it to bridge the gap between expenses and lost income.
Morgan also stated that, based on surveys of parents, Landmark made refinements to its remote learning program. These included more teacher-created videos, mailing home prepared packets of materials for use with lesson plans, the option for families to schedule small-group and 1-to-1 Google Meet sessions with teachers, and more open-ended activities to support play and exploration.
Not all parents supported the petition. Matt MacDonald said:
We raised a number of issues and concerns with school administration throughout the closure this spring. The school was pretty quick to provide thorough, honest, and quick answers to our questions. (Ridgefield Academy head of school) Tom Main even spent an hour with us on a conference call to discuss our concerns about this coming fall to the best of his ability. Our experience was completely different to what was put down in that petition — and there are plenty of other parents who feel the same way.
Still, according to parents who contacted “06880,” over half of Westport families are “disappointed, frustrated and angry. They feel that they’ve been taken advantage of. The school did a good job of keeping families from talking to each other. It was impossible to get emails for all the families. ”
One parent said that their pre-payments for the spring semester “presumably went toward teacher and staff salaries and operating expenses. It seems curious to receive a PPP loan that is also supposed to go towards paying teacher and staff salaries.”
Another said, “After the large number of parents politely requested to further discuss the matter, Landmark responded with a letter that felt very dismissive. They essentially said, ‘we used your money to pay for a top-notch online program.’ Online learning for toddlers is comic at best.”
A third summed up their frustrations: “None of us parents want any negativity or adversarial interactions. But it feels like we were taken advantage of, when we should have banded together and handled this unprecedented situation with compromise on both sides.”