A Bend Montessori day care and preschool abruptly closed Monday after financial shortcomings due to shrinking enrollment, leaving 10 teachers and staff members without a job or a May paycheck, and about 50 families without child care.
Parents and staff at River Song School first learned about the closure Friday morning when recently-hired School Director Arren Molina-Gassen held a meeting to inform them of the closure and tell them about the canceled staff pay. She also said that parents who prepaid their child’s tuition for the rest of the year or half-year would not receive refunds, according to parents at the meeting.
Parents mostly didn’t handle this sudden news well.
“They were incredulous, like, ‘How did this happen? How did we only find out about this now?’” said Sean Leslie, whose 5-year-old son attended River Song for two years. “Your kid goes to school on Friday, and you find out that school’s closed on Monday forever.”
In a city where child care is difficult to find — Oregon State University reported last year that there are 17 available child care spots for every 100 children in Deschutes County — multiple parents said they had to scramble to find child care. But many said they were also worried for the suddenly unemployed teachers and staff at River Song.
“I’m more concerned about the teachers,” said Robert Pickett, whose 3-year-old daughter attended River Song. “The lack of a paycheck is a far worse situation for them than it is for the parents.”
An email sent to parents Tuesday morning with River Song’s letterhead and the signature of the school’s founder, Robin Johnson, tried to illuminate the reasoning behind the school’s closure.
According to the email, when Johnson left work in early 2018 due to a brain injury, River Song was at full capacity and had reserve funds. But when she briefly returned at the end of last year, finances were mismanaged and unqualified staff were assigned to administrative roles, the email states.
This March, Johnson left River Song again after her doctor told her to move to a warm climate so she could fully rest from her brain injury, according to the email. It also stated that Johnson moved to Mexico at that time, and no money was taken from River Song to move or support her.
But Johnson told The Bulletin Tuesday afternoon, in a call from Mexico, that she did not write the email nor give consent to send it. She declined to comment further.
Jessé Roberts — a Bend nonprofit director who had worked as a consultant for the school when Johnson first left and stuck with the company until its end — told The Bulletin that while Johnson was gone, River Song’s office manager was turning parents away and saying the school was full. Longtime school accountant Maria Peace confirmed that, saying administrators entrusted with enrollment weren’t answering phones or responding to messages. This led to declining enrollment, and River Song’s finances suffered.
According to federal tax forms, Johnson’s annual salary was $68,000 in 2016. The forms also state that, in that year, River Song had over $100,000 in net assets.
Some parents believe River Song staff embezzled funds, which is what led to the school’s closure, but Peace and Roberts both said this is untrue. Peace said she had to speak with FBI agents after a parent told the U.S. Department of Justice that Johnson fled to Mexico with embezzled funds. Roberts said he had a parent threaten to physically assault him.
Roberts said he hired Molina-Gassen in early May after a two-month long search. However, very soon after the new director was hired, Roberts said all three teachers in River Song’s toddler program and the office manager abruptly quit — something that puzzled him and Peace.
“It felt like sabotage to the school,” Peace said.
Both Roberts and the email say one factor to the school’s closure was Peace, who didn’t tell Molina-Gassen or Johnson that River Song couldn’t afford to pay teachers or its rent until the very end of May. Roberts said this news was “a huge surprise.” The email stated that Peace told Roberts as late as May 29 that the school would be able to cover payroll, but still recommended that Molina-Gassen tell parents that the school was being shut down two days later.
“Maria decided on her own to not bill for June which set the school in a crisis and left (River Song) in a position of not being able to pay employees for their May work,” the email stated.
Peace called the email “totally untrue.” She said she never made a decision to close the school or hold a parent meeting, but simply attended the meeting when Molina-Gassen asked her to. Furthermore, she said she had kept the school’s staff and board of directors informed about declining enrollment and shrinking profits since September.
According to Peace, Johnson texted her that Roberts had forged the letter Tuesday. Roberts said that Johnson asked him during a long phone conversation Monday to “share her side of the story,” so he wrote the letter, which Johnson’s parents read and made edits to before it was sent to River Song parents Tuesday morning, as Johnson herself requested.
Johnson did not confirm whether she asked Roberts to write the letter.
In an email sent to former River Song families Tuesday evening, Molina-Gassen wrote that she “had no idea as to the true state of affairs for River Song.” She also confirmed that the FBI and Department of Justice are actively investigating the school.
A former River Song teacher said the school’s teachers and aides didn’t wish to comment on the school’s closure.
Multiple parents said they had no clue about River Song’s financial troubles, but they did have concerns about staff turnover and lack of communication from administrators.
“We knew something wasn’t right, but we didn’t know what,” said Jess Hudes, whose 2-year-old son attended the school.
River Song parent Leslie said after returning home from the Friday parent meeting, he immediately started a GoFundMe fundraising effort to help “soften the blow” for the teachers and staff who lost their May paychecks.
“The poor teachers at River Song, who are world-class and genuinely love and care for our children, suddenly found themselves without a month of back pay, and now they don’t have any income,” he said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Leslie’s GoFundMe had raised $9,260 out of a $25,000 goal, with 41 individuals giving money. He said he was proud of the community’s support.
“Hopefully (donations) keep coming in because these guys don’t deserve to be hung out to dry like that,” he said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7854, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misspelled Arren Molina-Gassen’s name, due to incorrect information provided to The Bulletin. The Bulletin regrets the error