Rock Creek International's Tearful Last Hurrah

Rock Creek International School holds its farewell celebration and eighth-grade graduation at American University's Kay Spiritual Life Center.
Rock Creek International School holds its farewell celebration and eighth-grade graduation at American University's Kay Spiritual Life Center. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Rock Creek International School, known for its dual-language immersion programs, closed its doors yesterday after a farewell ceremony marked by sadness and tears as legal wrangling escalated over the assets of the private school in Northwest Washington.

The school, which opened with fanfare in 1988, struggled to stay afloat amid allegations that the Board of Trustees had failed to notify parents of the school's dire finances. Last month, Rock Creek filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11, school officials said. The school's founder, who was forced out in October 2005, is seeking more than $1 million, in part, he says, because he has been disparaged by school officials.

A spokesman for the trustees said the school does not owe founder and former head J. Daniel Hollinger as much money as he says he is due. Hollinger did not return phone calls. He now runs a for-profit school, Coeus International, in the District.

The bad feelings surrounding the school's collapse were set aside briefly yesterday for the end-of-the-year and final graduation ceremony.

Parents watched their children perform a Greek myth, the acting school head gave a tearful speech and students bade each other goodbye as they prepared to scatter to public and private schools in the Washington region.

"It was sad on Monday and Tuesday, the last days in our language classes, but today was the saddest of all," said 7-year-old Katja Volker, a second-grader.

"It felt like saying goodbye to my family," said Alejandra Maudet, a veteran teacher who as acting head of school led the ceremony, held at American University.

The closing of Rock Creek is a rare event in the world of independent schools, which receive most of their funding from tuition. The school had struggled for years, and questions were raised by staff members, parents and others about the management, finances and academic programs, according to school documents, e-mails and interviews. But parents have said they were unaware of the seriousness of the problems until a Jan. 4 meeting with trustees.

According to parents who attended the meeting, trustees said they had become aware of the problems a short time before. But school documents and e-mails among trustees indicate that the board knew for far longer.

Parents, who were charged about $20,000 a year for tuition and fees, immediately began fundraising efforts to keep the school open for the rest of the school year, including selling Rock Creek's middle school building in Dupont Circle. They were successful, but enrollment could not be sustained to keep it open next year.

According to school documents, e-mails and interviews with school officials, Hollinger had run the school with little interference from trustees, many of whom he had handpicked. But after several years of operating deficits and questions about his professional and personal judgment, trustees voted to allow him to resign, according to the documents, e-mails and interviews.

Kathy Owen, then-board chairman, approved a $400,000 severance package for Hollinger in November 2005. The full board did not formally approve the severance until November 2006, and the treasurer of the school did not sign the agreement as required by school bylaws, according to documents and interviews. Payments were to continue through June 2007 but were stopped temporarily in March during the school's fiscal crisis, according to school officials.

Owen declined to discuss the severance. The current chairman, Caroline Turkus, and the other trustees also would not discuss the school and referred all questions to school attorney Al Turkus.

Al Turkus said that the severance package was complicated and that he believes it was legally enforceable. He said the school expects to be able to pay all of its creditors.

As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, the school has accepted a $650,000 offer from the Lab School of Washington to take over the lease for Rock Creek's Foxhall Road NW campus, which is a D.C. government property. It is possible, however, that someone else could make a higher bid.

Turkus said that a dispute about how much money the school owes Hollinger continues. Hollinger has invoked a clause in his severance package, alleging disparagement, and is seeking $1,038,653, including penalties of $5,000 for each of the severance checks that were delayed, Turkus said.

Turkus said severance checks, paid every two weeks, are $4,663.25 each.

After yesterday's ceremony, some children returned to the school to play outdoors, where Katja Volker found her own way to grieve. She hugged a school sign goodbye.

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