Special Report: School’s out…of money

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) -- A local Christian school that closed last summer still owes back pay to more than two dozen teachers, but the school's attorney says a plan is in place to honor the debt.

Courtney Lambaiso is a teacher caught between her passion and her paycheck.

"We thought we were a family. I absolutely loved teaching at Alliance Christian Academy," Lambaiso said, having taught at Alliance Christian for five years.

Her most recent contract, for $22,000 a year to teach third grade, covered the school's final year, 2016-17. It was far from being ironclad.

"The reason why I got upset is because in my contract they would constantly threaten us with 'funds permitting'. You will get paid 'funds permitting.'"

Alliance Christian Academy closed last summer when the administration determined it couldn't afford to remain open, but several former employees tell us the school still owes them money to this day.

Lambaiso says she was shorted about $3,500, typical of what others told us, and that red flags began about nine months before the doors closed, in the fall of 2016, when payroll began to get behind.

"And if we did get a paycheck, it would just be half, so it got to the point where people were having a hard time keeping up with whether they were owed another week or two's pay."

Lambaiso and others say payroll deductions for taxes and health insurance weren't itemized - and as it turned out, weren't being paid.

"Teachers were having surgeries scheduled, kids getting sick, and they couldn't get prescriptions filled, and then for example after the surgery they'd find out that their insurance wasn't still up because the school wasn't paying for it."

A January letter from the school's attorney confirms that the school owes money to the IRS. Attorney Glenn Reynolds declined an on-camera interview, but told us the key to the teachers ever getting paid is on a baseball field and adjacent property.

A statement from Reynolds says Alliance Church has a signed contract to sell part of its real property to a developer. The church would then use the sale proceeds to pay the school's debts.

Lambaiso says prior to closing, Alliance painted a rosy future that wasn't supported by the facts.

"We'd come to our mandatory teacher meetings every week. (The administration would say) 'enrollment's up, people are coming in, people are signing up.'"

The statement says Alliance has been selling assets and seeking to recover thousands of dollars in unpaid tuition, but has still been unable to make regular payments to creditors.  Lambaiso and her husband have three children who attended Alliance Christian.

Brody Lambaiso says the school would collect student fees but the money collected didn't cover what it was supposed to.

"Testing fees for example, would be taken out, but by the time the end of the year came when the standardized test was supposed to be given, there's was no money to give the test and they never gave the test."

The Lambaisos would like to see others speak out but understand why they could be reluctant.

"I understand that it is hard to come out," Brody Lambaiso said. "All of a sudden you're making yourself a target, too."

The school's attorney would not disclose the contract price for the sale of the property, other than to say it would be enough to cover the teachers' back pay. The sale would involve nearly six acres, more than half of what the church owns along Portsmouth Boulevard.

The transaction requires approval from the city of Portsmouth. Reynolds says that determination will be made by April 30, and if approved, he says the teachers should have their money by late June, if not earlier.

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