“I have a passion for amplifying the voices of those in our state that need the most help.”Anna Wolfe, investigative reporter
Teachers at New Summit School, the Jackson private school whose owner is accused of defrauding the state and federal government, did not receive checks on their May 31 payday, marking more than two weeks without pay.
Because of how most of the employees spread their paychecks, the school owes each of them anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 for the work they’d completed by the end of May, according to three teachers.
The insecurity surrounding paychecks for teachers at New Summit began in late March, after a federal grand jury indicted school owner Nancy New and her son Zach New for allegedly defrauding the Mississippi Department of Education out of more than $2 million in public education dollars.
Now, at the request of New Summit parents, the News are transferring operations of the school over to a court-appointed custodian while they continue to await trial.
Three teachers who did not want their names printed for fear of retaliation told Mississippi Today that they are uncertain if they will be paid for the remainder of their contract, which runs through the end of July.
Nancy New technically stepped down from running the school after her separate arrest last year within an alleged welfare embezzlement scandal, Clarion Ledger reported, but several people involved with the schools told Mississippi Today that Nancy New continued to work from the Jackson campus often.
The state has paid New’s private school district about $837,000 since the beginning of this fiscal year, including two dyslexia scholarship payments in April and May, since the arrests, totaling $83,000. Federal authorities accused New of using public school dollars that her school received in earlier years to purchase her private home in north Jackson.
Much of the school’s public funding comes from Education Scholarship Accounts, which the state pays private schools quarterly on behalf of parents of students with disabilities. The next round of these payments is expected in late June.
New Summit School administrators told teachers during a staff meeting at the end of March that their paychecks were in jeopardy, but teachers continued to receive checks on time until this week. The teachers Mississippi Today spoke with earn salaries of around $40,000.
School leaders have not been forthcoming with teachers about the status of their paychecks, teachers said.
The administration has directed all questions to Roy Balentine, the interim director at New Learning Resources, the name of the umbrella school district. Balentine, former Pearl High School principal, has not communicated with New Summit teachers as a group regarding their pay for the May 1 to May 15 pay period or subsequent pay periods.
Multiple teachers interviewed for this story vocalized their frustration about the lack of communication from administrators over the last few months.
“We do not know if we are getting paid until the paycheck is in our hands,” one teacher said.
Despite this instability, teachers say they’ve attempted to maintain a positive learning environment for their students, evidenced by heartfelt Facebook posts.
“I held back many tears this week when I was asked by students, ‘What will happen to us? Where will we go? Will I see you again?’” one teacher wrote on May 19, the last day of the school year. “[New Summit School] was their home too. I watched as my beloved students trickled out the door today and wondered the same thing, what will happen to them? I hugged crying parents and students, uncertain of any reassurances I could offer them.”
Nancy New founded the school in 1997 to offer smaller classes and more individualized instruction to Mississippi schoolchildren. Her for-profit company and school district called New Learning Resources eventually encompassed six private schools, including an online diploma program. New Summit School began rapidly growing in recent years, and though it is not specifically a special education school, it had earned a reputation of catering to nontraditional students.
As New’s charges have received widespread attention, parents of New Summit students have worried about the school’s future and whether the specialized and renowned education their children receive at the school will continue. Both teachers and parents say that New Summit School has been an invaluable resource to the students with learning disabilities enrolled there.
Some teachers also expressed concern about whether they still have health insurance. One teacher told Mississippi Today that her insurance had lapsed already in March.
“Yes, we are ‘in this together.’ It is a bad situation for everyone,” a New Summit teacher wrote in an email to school leadership last week, “but as a single mom, my personal children deserve electricity, water and food. These are solely provided through the money I bring home.”
Balentine told teachers they could expect to receive more information regarding pay from Gary Herring, who will be taking over the school through a corporate custodianship, emails obtained by Mississippi Today show.
Parents of students at New Summit approached Herring, who served as the headmaster of First Presbyterian Day School for multiple decades, about six weeks ago, asking him to help them keep the school open through the end of the year.
“These are a bunch of very loyal and dedicated parents,” Herring said. “These parents are really seeking a solution as to what to do with these children in the future, whether the school becomes viable or they have other choices they have to make.”
A June 1 Hinds County Chancery Court order appointed Herring as the corporate custodian of the New Summit School, giving him full responsibility over all funds related to the school and all day-to-day operations of the school.
“I’ve been very impressed with these parents, and [felt] they needed help to find a solution to the needs of these autistic children,” Herring added. “And that’s what’s so important. And that’s the only reason I got involved was because I was trying to do something for the parents and the children.”
He will have the authority to fulfill the remaining contractual requirements of New Summit, including paying teachers the remainder of their salary, the order states. Hinds County Chancery Court Judge J. Dewayne Thomas signed the order Tuesday.
Once the criminal charges against the News were made public, much of the operating budget of the New Summit School was frozen. One of the goals of the court-managed custodianship is to free up those funds and allow the New Summit School to continue operations, according to William Matthew Thompson, attorney for the parent group.
Herring said he was not able to obtain much information about the status of the school prior to the order being signed, and therefore did not wish to comment on the future of the school.
On Wednesday, Herring sent an email to school staff saying that the custodianship would begin without any funds to make payroll, but that he had started seeking funds from the state and parents.
“Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of success,” he wrote.
Teachers and students do not know if the New Summit School will remain in operation next school year, sources said, leading many to already seek other employment or enroll in other schools.