Updated at 9:25 a.m. March 28, 2012
Cara Day’s dream of running a private school was shattered in December when she closed the Day-McKellar Prep School on Jackson Drive. Fifteen of her 85 students had withdrawn over two months, she said, and she couldn’t pay the rent or payroll
Now the divorced mother of four says she has no money.
And she’s being sued for $10,000 by one of her students’ parents.
Judith Nell Thomas of Santee filed suit March 1 against Day and Day-McKellar Preparatory School Inc. in El Cajon small-claims court. Although well-known San Diego jeweler Leo Hamel once had a stake in the school as part owner, he is not a party in the suit.
Thomas’ son Jeremy, 11, was a sixth-grader at Day’s school, which she operated with Leo Hamel of jewelry store fame in the old Home Savings & Loan building.
A hearing is set for April 10, with Thomas seeking the maximum allowed in small-claims court.
A single mom and former respiratory therapist, Judy Thomas says she lives off a trust from her late sister, who she took care of until her death.
“The experience at the school was great,” Thomas told Patch on Monday. “I met with [Day] after last school year and Jeremy spent the day up there. And I told her about my trust. It was coming out of my son’s trust because I’m on a very limited income, being a single mom and all.”
But Thomas said the expenses piled up—and she ended up paying more than $17,000.
“I figure he went for 66 days, so I’m going for $10,000, which is the limit I can go,” she said in a phone interview.
“So [Day] had the tuition, but then she put extra amount of money on there ... the field trips, the camp that they’re supposed to go and do, supplies, whatnot.”
Day charged $3,000 beyond regular tuition, Thomas said.
But her son “was doing great,” Thomas said. “He got straight A’s … and all kinds of things. I was amazed. It was so different to the schooling that he’s been getting. And he felt really confident, and every teacher told me he’s a teacher’s dream.”
Three days before Christmas, however, Thomas said she got email that the school was closing and that parents should pick up student work Jan. 2.
“And now it’s like a bear trying to get my son to do his homework,” Thomas said. “I had to sign my first C- and F-graded papers, and I’ve never had to do that before—because he’s not feeling it. He feels so screwed. And now [Day] thinks she [doesn’t] even owe me money. And tuition is ‘nonrefundable,’ well, yeah, if I leave, ya know? Frustrating as hell.”
Thomas said she thought she was the only one who paid in advance—with the rest of the families paying month-to-month.
[In early February, that Day said parents paid month-to-month and didn’t need reimbursement when the school shut down Dec. 17. Reminded of that comment Tuesday, Day said: “I don’t discuss the private financial issues of my customers.”]
But later, via text message, Day said another family also had paid in full, “and they are coming to see me at the new center [she operates as a tutorial service] at no charge for their tuition balance.”
Day offered Thomas the same arrangement, “but she refused,” Day said in a text after a 10-minute phone interview.
“It was important to me to honor what I could, given that I no longer have an income,” Day said.
Thomas said Day told her that said she’d talk to someone about getting Jeremy a scholarship to a Mission Valley school, “but again, it’s twice as far [from home], and I don’t know if I could even get him there every day.”
She acknowledged that Day offered Jeremy tutoring, but said: “She would charge me $250 a day, and she could do it every day until [my previous tuition] was paid off. And then she tried to offer me life coaching. And no, I don’t need that or want that.”
On Wednesday, Day responded: “Judy Thomas asked to have the extra expenses added to her tuition so she wouldn’t have to pay them out of pocket. Her son received a brand new Mac computer from those funds as well as his excursion fees.”
Thomas looked into two charter schools, she said, but they weren’t taking students, so now her son is in Carlton Oaks School in the Santee School District.
Had she known Jeremy would attend Carlton Oaks, she would have bought him clothes for Christmas—“because he couldn’t very well wear his uniform to a public school. And my trust is the only income I have right now, so I’m in a tough situation, and [Day] was well aware of it,” she said.
“It’s just really important that [Jeremy] likes his school and succeeds, and right now he hates his school. He’s too young to be hating school. If I don’t get him on the right track once puberty hits, we’re screwed (laughs). And it was so much different when he liked school. It was wonderful. He was the treasurer at ASB there; he was in a play.”
Thomas said she met Day the day Jeremy was visiting the school before enrolling.
“Overall my impression of her was really good,” she said. “She said her dream was to live for the children, to be a teacher and watch them excel. But most of our correspondence is over email. Any ‘proof’ that I have is over email.”
Thomas also accused Day of taking her children to Hawaii in October and the Caribbean in November.
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah,” Thomas said. “Hawaii and then she took her four kids and two of their friends … and I asked her: How come if you can’t pay me, how come you can take six kids off to the Caribbean? And she said, ‘Well, that was with my own money.’ OK, well if she’s got that much money, ten grand is a drop in the bucket. Why not just do what’s right?”
In a phone interview Tuesday night, Day said she took her children [about ages 12 to 18] to the Caribbean because she had paid for the trip a year in advance and “I couldn’t get a refund.”
The Hawaii trip?
“My children went to Hawaii with their dad,” Day said. “I’m not married to their dad anymore.”
Asked to comment on the lawsuit, Day said: “It’s up to the court. The school is closed. The corporation is closed.”
In a text message, Day added: “In hindsight, there were a lot of things I did right, and many things I did wrong, too. Things that were beyond my skill set. It was a huge undertaking for any 37-year-old with big dreams.” [She’s now in her early 40s.]
She recalled that someone famous once said, “It’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.”
Parent Thomas also was critical of Hamel, Day’s original partner in the school—who settled a fraud lawsuit with Day.
“She settled it out of court,” Thomas said, “so I guess that was like $300,000. But then when they were having that one meeting with all the parents, and I was talking to someone out front. Then Leo Hamel comes walking by and he’s just strutting his stuff and says ‘I didn’t sign anything, hehehe,’ and I’m just thinking ‘What the heck is that all about?’ ”
For his part, Hamel said Tuesday via email: “I am not sure I want to get further involved. I DID NOT get $300,000.”
Day called the figure gossip and misinformation and confirmed: “Leo was not paid $300,000.”
Asked about Hamel’s new school on the Jackson Drive site, Day said: “No comment.”
Thomas said that after a girlfriend served Day court papers—after a 2½-hour wait at a restaurant outside Day’s San Diego office—“I haven’t heard hide nor hair from her yet. I was kind of hoping I would before the [court hearing].”
Thomas added: “I know if I don’t win my case, I’m going to stand out in front of her place with a picket sign. Ruin her reputation, or something.”
Lisa Achenbach of La Mesa—a speech therapist at Morse High School and a certified public accountant—was another parent critical of how the school was closed.
Her 12-year-old daughter was enrolled in sixth grade at the prep school after seeing an ad in San Diego Magazine, Achenbach said Monday in a phone interview.
She said she spoke with Day, “and we really, really liked everything we heard about the school. Everything sounded ideal. Our daughter started in the fall. When we met with her, she was showing us the plans [for the building] and it all sounded like it was worked out. It was really a great opportunity, and they had the lease for the next 10 years. It sounded like it was all set.”
Everything seemed to be going along well, she said—“and then the bombshell was kind of dropped on us over Christmas break that there would be no school to come back to for January.”
“I had heard that some different kids had been dropping out of the school, but I didn’t hear that it was on the brink of closing.”
Day said she felt the same “bombshell” shock when “I did not get a heads up [about] the 15 children withdrawn in a short period of time.”
Since families were paying $900 to $1,400 a month in tuition, “it would be impossible for me to absorb that type of loss,” Day said.
Achenbach said her family was really taken aback.
“And since then, we’ve heard that there were things going on at the school that weren’t as they appeared,” she said. “All of these rumors, and one thing that I did come to find out was that my daughter’s academics weren’t really where we thought they were. I don’t believe the learning that we thought was going on was really happening.”
Day defended her school, saying, “The teachers were excellent, and they implemented a tremendous program.” And then she added: “There have always been and always will be choices in private education.”
For her part, Achenbach admitted: “I don’t know the real story, but I definitely don’t think the head of the school is a victim in all this. I think there were poor decisions made—nothing that I can prove, but I think there were things that could have been done to prevent the school from closing.”
The La Mesan said one good thing coming out of this was that her daughter now attends the Leo Hamel K-8 Academy, operating out of the rear of the Home Savings building, “and that has proven to be a positive experience. We are really keeping close track on what is going on with her academics and her learning.”
Achenbach paid the Day-McKellar school month-to-month, she said.
“We met [Cara] the first time when we did a tour, and our impression was that she was a wonderful person. I mean ‘Oh my gosh,’ she built this ideal school, which sounded too good to be true, which I guess it was (laughs), but of course you wanna believe it.”
She said Hamel was talking with one of the teachers at a final meeting, “and we were thinking of talking to this teacher as well about working with our daughter [as a private tutor] to get her up to speed and where she needed to be until we could find another school. We just didn’t know what we were going to do.”
Achenbach noted that Day has opened a new business since then, “and I’ve heard rumors that she has a new BMW, and things like that. Which is kind of hard to take.”
Day, a La Mesa native, laughed painfully when told of the BMW rumor.
“That’s funny,” she said before a long pause. “I have four children, and I have no money.”
Achenbach said she had heard from people who have known Day for a long time that “this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. …. She’s had other businesses that she suddenly closed … down.”
Day denied that assertion Wednesday: “I have not closed another business. I was in private practice before the school as an educational therapist and many of those students became students in the school. My business practice grew into a school; it wasn’t closed.”
Achenbach said she was sad about the December shuttering, “and I’m frustrated with Cara and I know other parents feel that way. I know she thinks she’s the victim in this, and I don’t know all of the details, so I don’t want to really speak ill of her, or the background facts, but I just know what appears to us what happened.”
Day said Tuesday: “I don’t expect Judy Thomas or anyone else to understand what is involved in making a private school.”
Day emailed Patch a link to a March 26 story in The New York Times that said: “Relentless fund-raising, be it for the annual fund, the spring benefit or the latest capital campaign, is as much a feature of private schools as small classes and diverse offerings.”
The Times also reported:
School heads say that raising money is an increasingly important part of the job. Tuition, more than $40,000 at some schools, typically covers only 80 percent of the cost of educating a student. So schools need additional fund-raising to cover financial aid, maintain and expand facilities and broaden program offerings.
Moreover, Day said she worked 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily over the summer preparing for the K-12 school’s opening, “and nobody wanted that school to stay open more than me.”
Day has said some students were pulled for economic reasons and the long drive and Tuesday she said others might have been withdrawn as parents began “losing faith” while seeing others leave.
“I don’t know,” Day said. “It’s still something that I think about.”
Some parents might not have given the real reasons for quitting the school, she said.
“Most people aren’t real excited about sharing” their financial problems, Day said.
Day noted her own children were devastated by the closing, and said: “There’s a human side to this story, you know. I’m a person. I tried to do a really good thing for a lot of people.”