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Teachers sue shuttered Pinellas County Jewish Day School

LARGO — Twenty former teachers of the Pinellas County Jewish Day School say they weren't paid thousands of dollars in wages after the school closed last May.

Their claims, which total more than $145,000, and other debts were revealed in a bankruptcy court case filed by the school last month.

The Day School, the only private Jewish school in Pinellas, closed its doors abruptly last year after 30 years in the community.

The Chapter 11 filing also reveals that the Day School has an offer from a company based in Hollywood, Fla., to buy the school's property for $2.7 million for a charter school. That school is Pinellas Academy of Math and Science, according to an application approved by the School Board last year.

Thirteen of the former teachers also filed a suit against the Day School for unpaid wages in December. That case has been waylaid by the bankruptcy.

Teachers say their salaries for the 2009-10 school year, like previous years, were supposed to be paid over 12 months, but their pay ended just after the school closed.

The school's decision to stop paying them deprived them of 10 weeks' pay, said Fran Sosslau, who was the interim head of the school.

"We fulfilled our end of the contract," said Sosslau, whose claim says the school owed her more than $11,800. "We taught until the last day."

David Schechter, president of the Jewish Day School's board of directors, said lawyers have advised him that the teachers didn't have a contract.

The school is disputing the "amount and legality of the claim for the salaries," he said.

But he said that doesn't mean they won't be compensated.

"Our intention is to do everything we can to make the teachers whole," he said.

The teachers say in their final school year they were asked to sign a different, shorter agreement called a "letter of intent."

The document specifically listed each employee's salary and said that it would be "paid out twice monthly for 12 months," said Sosslau, who kept copies of those agreements.

One of the former teachers, Margaret "Peggy" Gerson, taught Jewish studies and Hebrew at the school for 11 years. She and Sosslau said the school hired a spokesman, lawyers and others when it ran into financial trouble.

"All of this money came out of school money that could have paid teachers," said Gerson, who now volunteers at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, where she teaches Hebrew and prayers.

Schechter said the board was looking out for a lot of different interests at the time.

"We thought we were spending the money in the best way possible for the overall good of the school," Schechter said.

Gerson, 67, said she will likely have to find a job in a different field. "I'm worried because my husband is retired and I was expecting to be working for a number of years," Gerson said. "We need that extra income."

In late May the teachers received a letter from the board of directors of the Day School reminding them to remove their personal property by June 1.

They were told that all of their pay and benefits would stop by May 31, 2010.

Elaine Kay, who taught at the school for five years, said teachers were even more upset about the way the school ended than the fact that they didn't get paid.

"It wasn't just a job to us," Kay said. "It was something we loved doing. We loved these kids. Just being cut out of the loop and discarded was very difficult."

Various factors have been linked to the school's collapse.

The poor economy, parents having difficulty paying dues, and benefactors who couldn't live up to their commitments all contributed to the downfall, Schechter said.

A number of parents also said they lost confidence in the school after they were repeatedly asked to chip in more money to keep the school afloat.

Schechter said his children were students at the school and he took a leadership role, hoping to save it.

"I felt strongly from an academic, religious and cultural perspective that our community needed a Jewish day school," he said.

The Day School's filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa lists 25 creditors owed a total of about $2.6 million. The debts include about $2 million for a loan and mortgage modification on the school's property at 1775 S Highland Ave., and $73,000 in unpaid payroll taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. The school also lists assets totaling about $2.8 million, including the property.

The new charter school is negotiating a contract with Pinellas County schools, said Dot Clark, the district's coordinator of partnership schools.

The new charter school's consultant, Michael Strader, said the school's founders are "pretty confident" it will be housed at the Highland Avenue property as soon as next fall.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Teachers sue shuttered Pinellas County Jewish Day School 02/11/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 12:26pm]

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