Parents take charge after InterCultura director fires staff

? School is in session, but with mounting financial crisis, director turns to parents, who are willing to help, though not with a blank check.

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By DREW CARTER

Students at InterCultura Montessori School continued to attend classes Tuesday, despite a bizarre overturn in governance that began Dec. 9 when the school's founder and former director fired the entire staff and parents assumed control of operations and changed the locks at both campuses.

Parents say the director, Michael Rosanova of Oak Park, steered the school into financial ruin, and they filed a temporary restraining order to keep him from impeding operations.

Rosanova, who also was one of three voting members on the board of the nonprofit that owns the school, said that the board still controls the school, and needs to sell off school assets to repay debts. He posted "No Trespassing!" signs at both InterCultura campuses (preschool in Oak Park, elementary in Cicero), and reported to Oak Park police Monday that the school was operating without a license or insurance.

When police visited the school Monday afternoon, school representatives produced proof of both a license and insurance, said Deputy Police Chief Robert Scianna.

Because of the civil suit parents filed, "We're out of it. This is a civil matter," Scianna said.

The temporary restraining order asks the court to affirm the appointment of an interim board and to require that Rosanova provide the school's books and records so InterCultura can continue to operate, said Sharon Barner, an intellectual property litigator at Foley & Lardner and parent of three children at the school.

Approximately 100 families have children at the 301 S. Ridgeland Ave. school, about half of whom are from Oak Park or River Forest.

Barner said the interim board will have 12 members, in fitting with the school's bylaws. Rosanova said parent board members in the past have made "disastrous decisions," that the school has operated the past decade with three members, and that the 2004 revised bylaws require only three board members.

Rosanova's wife served on the board until August, and his sister-in-law currently sits on the board.

Money the root of problems

In October, Rosanova gathered a group of wealthy parents to ask for financial support. The school had cash-flow problems by having two campuses, low tuition and almost half of its students receiving scholarships, Rosanova said.

He said parent donations could have easily trimmed the approximately $150,000 of debt the school had amassed.

But parents weren't willing to write a blank check, said Leticia Villarreal Sosa, another parent.

"We wanted to put in a system of checks and balances ... so he didn't have this absolute control," Villarreal Sosa said.

Parents asked that Rosanova cede control, stepping down from the board and reducing his administrative powers.

But he was not willing to do that. Having spent 20 years building the school, and sinking an estimated $75,000 into operations, Rosanova preferred to close the school rather than be stripped of power, he said.

He closed the school last Thursday, months behind in rent at both campuses, and the day before teachers were to be paid.

Rosanova seized some money left in the school's accounts to repay loans he and his wife had made to the school. "We're creditors, too," he said. But Rosanova could not remember how much money he recouped and referred the question to the school's former business administrator. A call to the administrator's cell phone refers all InterCultura inquiries to a downtown Chicago lawyer.

Deal couldn't be made

Parents and Rosanova had worked to settle the matter late last week, but talks broke down over the overwhelming gap between the value of a possible deal.

Parents say Rosanova asked for a half million dollars, but offered him six $5,000 payments for consulting services over the next year.

Villarreal Sosa estimated the school's assets at $30,000, saying the only real assets were educational materials. Rosanova put that figure at $150,000, saying he was told that the assets would be enough to cover debts, and that the school had furniture, computers and items other than educational materials.

Parents plan to continue operations at both campuses, hire a new director and install board members who will help fundraise and build the school. Elementary school students currently attend classes in one parent's very large home, Villarreal Sosa said.

No teachers and only a few parents have left, parents say.

Rosanova said he will pursue teaching at the college level.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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