Teachers say they are not receiving pay

February 7, 2012 3:32:43 PM PST
Teaching can be one of the toughest jobs in the world, even tougher if you are not getting paid for it.

That's what some special needs teachers at the Asperger Connection School in Wayne County say they faced, and their boss admitted it.

Despite the situation, teachers told me they kept working. However, they soon found themselves unable to afford to work for free anymore.

"I would still be there if it wasn't for the fact that I couldn't afford gas to get to school anymore," former teacher Jill Baker said.

Baker taught kindergarten through first grade at the school for six months. Even though her paycheck was hundreds, and sometimes more than a thousand dollars short, just a month after school started.

"I loved my students; it wasn't a 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. job for me," she said. "Those children were part of my life ... I got attached to those children and I didn't want to let go."

The children have Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism with many different symptoms, but the common thread is a lack of social skills.

The common complaint against The Asperger Connection School was a lack of pay, shortly after the private school opened in August.

The teachers said they were paid in full the first month, but come September they did not receive their deposit.

Baker said teachers at the 35-student grade school soon learned they'd only be getting paid one week out of every month.

You never know when you are going to get a week's pay," she said. "And when that week's pay comes, it's like, 'Hallelujah, I got a week's pay!' And that just kind of just gets me through just a little bit longer."

When other teachers started quitting, Baker said she kept teaching the kids even though she was barely scraping by.

As time went by, I started getting more nervous and more nervous, as things couldn't be paid," she said. "Every creative resource I can come up with has been tapped out. I've had to change my lifestyle, count change to go to the grocery store, not be able to go to church on Sunday because I'm trying to conserve gas."

Baker said the teacher turnover rate soon started taking a toll on the kids.

"They could tell the stress level of us, even though we didn't talk about it in front of the children … they can tell," she said.

Parent Pamela Futch said she had to pull her first grader out of the school.

"He just wasn't himself," Futch said. "He was stressed. He was extremely anxious. So when you have different staff members coming in and out, it's just he's a walking time bomb."

Parent Hunter Smith said his son still goes to The Asperger Connection School for now.

"They need some constant normalcy in their life," Smith said. "I know he doesn't do well with change at all, so if he's constantly having to deal with a new teacher, a new TA, they got a new schedule, they're doing things differently, that's going to throw him off completely."

After hearing from parents and teachers, I sat down with the school's founder and executive director, Nancy Black.

"We were having some financial difficulties and the staff was told: You have the option to either stay with the school and work through these financial difficulties, or you have the option to leave at any point in time," Black said.

She admitted many of her original staff had left but said the school hasn't missed a beat.

"Every one of them was replaced by a teacher who was better qualified and much more committed to these children," Black said.

She also said she didn't think the turnover caused any problems for the kids.

"It's more important that we have the consistency from women who are very committed to the school, versus the teachers who were obviously here for the money, and when the money got short, they went 'swoot' (motions to the door) - they were gone," Black said.

"But do you blame them," I asked.

"Not in the least," Black replied.

And even though staffers are still just being paid about one-quarter of their salary, Black said she plans to pay everyone back eventually.

"I have a business plan in place, and I'm not at liberty to discuss that with you," Black said.

However, the teachers and parents have said they want to discuss it, pointing me to a second Asperger Connection School that recently opened in Durham.

"I'm frustrated, because you're dealing with all of us that aren't being paid and meeting our goals and our financial responsibilities, but you have a whole other school that a whole other group of people are they going to be affected as well," Baker said. "And if they can't pay us, how are they going to pay them?"

Maybe by hiking the tuition - like Black did in Pikeville - from $3,000 a year when it opened, to $6,000 just a few months later.

The starting tuition for the new Durham school is $20,000 a year.

"I would like the Durham parents to know what's going on in Pikeville, so they can be prepared," parent Hunter Smith said.

I asked Black why she'd open a second school while her first one was barely hanging on and why she'd charge Durham families $14,000 per person more and she replied, "Because it is a stronger demographic we are able to secure more tuition from the school in Durham."

Black added that the Durham tuition would help keep the Pikeville school going, and she also has plans to open a third school in Wilmington in the future.

However, she first has to deal with a state investigation into the unpaid wages of former staff.

"I'm working through the Department of Labor, and I'm not at liberty to discuss that with you. I'm under their guidelines," Black said.

As for Baker, she said she thought the schools were a great idea and a good cause, but a bad business model. She also said she hopes it all works out for the kids' sake.

"You have special needs children that they have enough going on in their life right now they need a solid and learning environment where they can feel safe and confident and not have to worry about what's going to happen with their teachers, if they're going to be there," Baker said.

Black could not give a date as to when she would be able to repay her former staff and start paying the current staff their full salary. As of now, they are only receiving one week's pay a month.

She also revealed that she sunk more than $100,000 of her own money into the schools and she's hoping for non-profit status and grants to help keep them going.

In the meantime, the state investigation continues. An email from the state investigator to the former employees who filed complaints lets them know the state has given Black until the end of the month to come up with the money.

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