DocuDrama: Troubled Preschool Shutters, Leaving Teachers and Parents Feeling Stiffed

IMG_0382Stephen Rex Brown The blinds are drawn at the preschool, which abruptly closed earlier this month.

When Devon Eisele took her 4-year-old daughter to Love A Lot preschool on Clinton Street on July 1 and Con Edison had cut the power, that was the last straw. While teachers did their best to improvise, taking the tykes to playgrounds and out for lunch, Ms. Eisele and her husband decided to withdraw their child from the financially struggling school.

As it turned out, they left at just the right time. Days later, the Clinton Street space closed, and the school was consolidated into the original location on Suffolk Street.

On October 5, that location abruptly closed, leaving parents scrambling to find a new preschool, and teachers fuming about months of unpaid wages. That day, the Department of Health revoked Love A Lot’s operating permit, citing “lack of an educational director, inability to provide documentation of staff medical records, and failure to screen staff,” according to a spokeswoman. Previously, the same location had been cited by city health inspectors for a variety of violations, including not having a staff member trained in CPR on site, lack of working fire and carbon monoxide alarms, and problems with hot and cold water — all of which were resolved, according to the spokeswoman.

The owner of Love A Lot, Olga Bosio, is named in two lawsuits, one from a former teacher seeking $6,500 in back wages, and another from former parents seeking $10,500 for tuition paid up front, as well as deposits for the school year. (According to Ms. Eisele, tuition at the school was around $2,000 a month.)

In addition to the teacher that filed the lawsuit, five others told the Local they are owed $16,500 in unpaid wages. And another parent said he lost a $5,000 deposit for the upcoming school year.

To top it off, an ex-employee of the preschool who is familiar with its finances said that the grand total in unpaid payroll taxes, back wages, arrears, and deposits owed to parents is around $300,000. The ex-employee did not wish to be named because of ongoing litigation and other financial wrangling. Ms. Bosio described the figures as “a lie” and completely inaccurate. “I owe three or four teachers some money,” she said.

A spokesman for the state Department of Labor confirmed that there is an open investigation into the preschool but would not go into further details. Two teachers said that as many as 10 of their colleagues had contacted the department regarding unpaid wages at Love A Lot.

“It’s an unfortunate and sad situation,” said Mark Bartlett, whose daughter attended the school for three years until the bitter end. “We’re out $5,000, but our kids are out that consistency and stability that is so critical to them at this stage.”

<IMG_0384Stephen Rex Brown The playground equipment is still in the back of the preschool.

Hetty King, one of the plaintiffs suing Love A Lot for breach of contract, withdrew her daughter in September, but not before paying $10,500. “I couldn’t in good conscience send a child to a school where the teachers are being mistreated,” said Ms. King, who is a teacher herself. “It’s a huge sum of money for us, and Olga has it.”

Ms. Bosio said that both Mr. Bartlett and Ms. King were mistaken about what money they were entitled to be reimbursed.

The other lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court last year, alleges that Ms. Bosio, along with the school’s director, Silvia Morisaki, was withholding wages from a teacher as far back as June 2010. The suit, which can be read below, details allegations of screaming matches, theft of school property and a teacher forced to leave the school in front of her colleagues and students.

It’s unclear how the business — described as a top-notch preschool by the same parents who bemoan its poor management — completely collapsed. Ms. Bosio blamed its slow death on an ailing economy, an unreliable staff, and the perception that the business was struggling.

“People started to get nervous about financial difficulties,” she said. “I moved to the Suffolk [location of Love A Lot] with 39 kids. Then I had 10. Ten kids will not pay the rent, will not pay the teachers.”

Now, the blinds are drawn at Love A Lot, which catered to kids under 2 years old and as old as 5. The unused playground equipment is still in the back. Ms. Bosio said that all the classrooms are still stocked as they were on its final day. “I got depressed — I walked away with no money,” she said. “I invested everything I had. I don’t even have money to move out the school.”

But teachers and parents are unsympathetic to her plight.

“She’s clearly incompetent. There’s no question about that — but did she do what she did maliciously? That I don’t know,” Ms. Eisele said. “These teachers came in, day after day, gave their all, hugged these children, did a phenomenal job, and they weren’t getting paid.”

Indeed, four teachers all said they coped with bounced checks, delayed paydays, and arguments with Ms. Bosio while also tending to the children. Those that quit, like Karen Urquillas, said they weren’t allowed back into the school after turning in their notices. Ms. Urquillas said she is owed $5,000.

“The environment got unhealthy — a lot of stress,” she said. “I don’t see how we’re going to ever get the money back.”

Others echoed that sentiment, saying they doubted the wisdom of pursuing a lawsuit against Ms. Bosio when she is, by all accounts, broke.

“They can sue me — I don’t have a car, I don’t have an apartment. I got nothing,” Ms. Bosio said. “I’m renting an apartment. I don’t have the money to pay the rent.”

Mr. Bartlett said it was likely that other parents would file lawsuits as well. Some parents, he said, paid a year’s tuition up front, and have not been repaid. Now, the 11 parents who stayed at Love A Lot until it closed have been scrambling to find another preschool; a Herculean task, given the notoriously long waiting lists at so many New York preschools.

“Folks have been put in a hard position — trying to find other organizations and institutions that can accept kids this late in the game,” Mr. Bartlett said. “There are a lot of folks doing nanny-shares, enrolling them into drop-off care scenarios, rather than preschool.”

Despite all the drama of finding a school, both Mr. Bartlett and Ms. Eisele said it hasn’t been easy finding a preschool with as much of an emphasis on education as Love A Lot.

“There were a number of things that kept us there, even after we heard about financial problems,” Ms. Eisele said. “A yoga teacher, a French teacher, sign language, Spanish lessons — all these great things. As the kids got older they were learning a lot.”

Ms. Bosio expressed pride in the quality of the education, as well.

“My dream was to make the best preschool for Manhattan. I graduated three classes and all the kids did so well,” she said. “But nobody gives you credit when the business is running out from under your feet.”

Correction, Oct. 31, 2011: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Devon Eisele has two children. She has one daughter. The Local regrets the error.