Concord High School (photo by Brandon Wise)

WILSHIRE BLVD — Parents and teachers at a Santa Monica private high school with a reputation for academic excellence are fighting to keep the educational institution alive after it filed for bankruptcy and laid-off faculty, putting the future of roughly 50 students and their teachers in jeopardy.

Educators formerly employed by Concord High School, founded more than 35 years ago, said they have reached a deal with the local Boys & Girls Club to conduct classes there rent-free until the end of the spring semester, offering hope to families, some of whom have already paid a full-year’s tuition of $29,000.

“A school like this deserves to exist for all the kids it has helped,” said parent Lillian Wallace, who has two children enrolled at Concord and has donated money to help save the school. “I would follow these teachers if they taught in tents. These teachers are unbelievable. I have never seen such selflessness.”

Teachers and parents want desperately to continue as Concord High, providing continuity for students by retaining the name and faculty. But they may have to create an entirely new school, all within the span of a week or so, because the current board of directors at Concord said there is no money to cover expenses and liability.

“We’re done, we’re bankrupt,” said Bill Oppenheim, a parent of a Concord student who sits on the three-member board, which is comprised of parents. “We don’t want to run a school anymore. I wish [the teachers and parents] well.”

Concord is essentially a “school without walls,” Oppenheim said. The school currently exists to assist parents in getting transcripts so their children can continue their education elsewhere, and has agreed to issue diplomas to those seniors who complete similar curriculum either online or at another school.

Meanwhile, a bankruptcy attorney for Concord said he is investigating former headmaster Susan Packer-Davis-Hille and allegations that she mismanaged funds. Sources told the Daily Press that Packer-Davis-Hille was spending thousands of dollars in Concord money on personal expenses while paying herself a salary of over $300,000 at a time when enrollment at the nonprofit high school was down considerably. Tax forms also show hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on conferences and meetings which teachers said they never attended, leading them to question how the money was spent.

Packer-Davis-Hille, a former chair of the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, could not be reached for comment. The Daily Press visited her home on 19th Street but no one answered the door. A sign in front of the home said the property was for sale for nearly $850,000.

How the cookie crumbled

Parents and teachers told the Daily Press that they could never have imagined a school with a strong academic reputation and a legacy like Concord’s would go under. After all, this was a school that was established and was known for sending graduates to Ivy League universities. Packer-Davis-Hille would place an advertisement in a major newspaper ever year listing the universities graduates would attend.

Teachers and parents began to notice enrollment was down from the typical class of 100 students to roughly 50, but they believed it was a symptom of the struggling economy and more parents turning to public schools. They said they had no idea Packer-Davis-Hille was paying herself what was in their minds an exorbitant salary.

According to tax records filed by Concord, Packer-Davis-Hille in 2007 was earning a salary of $288,000. During that time the school had a revenue stream of $1.6 million and expenses totaling $1.8 million. In 2009, Packer-Davis-Hille gave herself a raise, putting her salary at $308,000. The school had revenue totaling roughly $1.5 million, meaning Packer-Davis-Hille’s salary alone was roughly 20 percent of the school’s total budget.

In comparison, recently-appointed Los Angeles schools’ Superintendent John Deasy just signed a contract for a base salary of $330,000 to manage the nation’s second largest school district with a budget in the billions. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Tim Cuneo had a base salary of $220,000 in 2009.

At New Roads, a private school on Olympic Boulevard, total revenue for 2009 was roughly $13 million and they paid their head of school a base salary of $248,682.

Tax records also showed that over three years, Packer-Davis-Hille spent close to $700,000 on undocumented expenses attributed to conferences, conventions and meetings.

“We never attended any conferences,” said Marissa deSiena, an English and history teacher at Concord who is working to save the school. “We had one open house a year, and it was catered, and we had a graduation ceremony, but that’s all I can remember.”

It wasn’t until Packer-Davis-Hille left the school in November and the new board took over that they started asking questions. The previous board consisted only of Packer-Davis-Hille and her husband, and there was no formal parent-teacher association, said Richard Corlin, chair of the board whose son is a senior at Concord.

“Up until we took over there was no fundraising, no endowment,” Corlin said. “There isn’t a private school in existence that doesn’t do fundraising. Tuition doesn’t pay the whole cost.”

Corlin and teachers who spoke with the Daily Press said they later learned that only a handful of students were paying full tuition while the majority were on scholarship, setting the school up for financial failure.

“They were behind on their rent, but other bills were current. They just had no cash,” Corlin said.

Members of the Concord board did not disclose how much back rent is owed.

The landlord filed court papers to evict the school, forcing the board to file for bankruptcy to stop the action at least until the end of the semester.

“We wanted to make sure the kids weren’t injured by things that adults do,” Oppenheim said.

Packer-Davis-Hille abruptly left, leaving the new board to sort things out. Immediately, meetings were held with parents and faculty to devise a plan to keep the school open. Around $300,000 was needed to finish out the school year, Corlin said. Parents were able to raise roughly $60,000 to keep the school open until the end of the first semester.

“These parents really stepped up,” Oppenheim said. “We would have had to close in November without parents, donors and one teacher who stepped forward and gave money.”

An intimate learning environment

To understand why parents who have already lost thousands would work so hard to keep the Concord family intact, one must look at how the school functions.

Founded in 1973 by Sonya Packer, who is Packer-Davis-Hille’s mother, Concord was and has always been a school dedicated to small class sizes, averaging only five to 10 students per class, and rigorous academics. The faculty includes teachers with graduate degrees and all of the courses are college preparatory and accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. It was common for students to have several hours of homework a night, a challenging learning environment that was not for every student, said Max Duganne, who graduated from Concord and taught math there before it closed.

“It’s a niche school. We don’t have athletics, there isn’t the social scene you would find at other schools,” Duganne said. “It was all about the academics.”

Andrew Taylor, who taught at the school for 10 years, said the small learning environments provided students with the one-on-one attention they needed while also making them feel empowered. Kids who were failing at other private or public schools began to blossom.

“Students were given respect and treated like adults,” Taylor said. “It was challenging academically and many of the kids needed that. They weren’t getting it at other schools.”

deSiena said she had never taught at a school where so many students wanted to be there on a daily basis.

“It really became a family.”

Oppenheim said his daughter was not focused before coming to Concord. She was bright, but not motivated.

“When she arrived at Concord, within a couple of weeks she was interested in school, reading books and doing classwork, something she lagged on before,” he said. “She just needed more individual attention and Concord was able to give that to her.”

Efforts to save Concord may fail

For the last week, some of the former teachers at Concord have been providing free tutoring sessions at the Boys & Girls Club in anticipation that the school will be able to continue. It is unclear if that will happen given that the Concord board is not willing to cooperate for financial reasons. Duganne and other teachers are hopeful they can reach a deal with Concord to use its license or file the necessary paperwork with City Hall to create a new school.

If too much time passes, there may not be enough students left to support a school. Several parents have enrolled their students elsewhere, a result of the uncertainty.

One parent who did not want to be identified said she has already enrolled her child in another school.

“It was a great place, the teachers are excellent and if it was still around, I would have no problem with my child going there,” she said. “But there’s too many unanswered questions right now.”

Looking back, Corlin and other parents wish they would have questioned Packer-Davis-Hille more, but they were blinded by the school’s reputation and the progress their children were making.

“Senior year should have been a fun year for kids,” said Corlin. “[Concord’s previous board] robbed our son of that experience. That is something I’m going to look for retribution for.”

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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