St. Ed’s sues family for breach of contract

Vero Beach’s private island school filed a lawsuit against the mother of a fifth-grader in circuit court last month alleging a breach in the student’s enrollment contract.

The courtroom maneuver, intended to recoup some $19,000 in lost tuition, legal damages and fees, is a familiar financial strategy for Saint Edward’s School, which has filed at least eight similar lawsuits in the last decade.

A 2012 New York Times article detailed the emerging trend of private schools suing for past due tuition. Parents face large bills even when their children never attended classes, it says. Contracts are written with very specific deadlines which parents are held to regardless of personal circumstance.

Schools, like Saint Edward’s, claim such actions help cover unplanned tuition losses, but parents have argued their child’s spot could easily be filled. Court decisions have been mixed, some favoring schools and some favoring parents, and many cases settle out of court with nondisclosure agreements.

The most recent suit filed by St. Ed’s alleges a Port St. Lucie mother made a $2,099 deposit for her son’s enrollment in March of 2017 but paid nothing after. Her son was set to enroll in the 2017-2018 school year, which began that August. A billing statement attached to the school’s legal complaint says the boy withdrew.

Tuition for the lower school, grades one through five, is $21,720 a year. Fees jump to $25,500 for middle school students and $28,000 for high school students.

Saint Edward’s 2017-2018 re-enrollment contract states parents must pay a nonrefundable deposit equal to 10 percent of tuition. Students are then enrolled for the full academic school year regardless whether they withdraw from classes or leave the area.

Cancellations and refunds are only provided if notification is made in writing by May 31, 2017, the contract states.

If the child is withdrawn, absent or separated from the school after that date for any reason, including change of residence, health, withdrawal or expulsion, there will be no refund or reduction in fees, it says.  “Any unpaid balance may, at the School’s election, become immediately due and payable . . . there is no right to cancel.”

The child’s mother, who listed a University of Miami e-mail address with the school’s Smart Tuition billing program, signed the contract Feb. 21, court documents show. She made no payments after the March deposit.  The statement, which indicates the child was withdrawn from Saint Edward’s School, doesn’t say when.

The mother did not respond to a request for comment. The school also refused to supply additional information, citing privacy concerns.

“Because this situation involves a minor student, we are going to decline to comment,” said Saint Edward’s spokeswoman Monica Jennings in a statement e-mailed to Vero Beach 32963. “We are looking forward to a swift resolution as we stay focused on our mission and finish the school year.”

It’s not clear if the other Saint Edward’s School students named in court documents were enrolled at the time of the legal action against their parents. Lawsuit amounts ranged from one family’s past due bill of $2,800 to another with multiple children enrolled allegedly owing more than $57,500 in fees.

Some parents were making payments on what they owed when they were sued. Others, like the mother in the most recent filing, paid a deposit and nothing else.

Mitchell Dinkin, a Wellington-based attorney who has filed all of the contractual complaints on behalf of Saint Edward’s School, declined an interview.

The school’s contract notes that its overhead expenses “do not diminish with the departure of some children . . . It is impossible for the school to determine at the time of parent’s execution of this enrollment contract the damage and loss to the school that would occur due to the later cancellation/withdrawal.”

Only one of the parents accused of nonpayment responded to a request for comment. The Vero Beach resident, whose ex-husband was sued by Saint Edward’s School for $2,832 in July 2014, asked the family’s name not be used.

She said her two boys were enrolled at Saint Edward’s on scholarship, but when those funds were reduced they reluctantly switched to public school.

Scholarship funds suddenly were only available to her eldest child who played football, the mother said. The family didn’t want to separate the brothers and the athlete chose to leave St. Edward’s along with his brother. The parents were separating at the time and the family’s finances were shaky.

There was a bill for around $6,000 in past due in tuition, the mother said. The boy’s father was in communication with administrators trying to establish a payment plan, she said. Her husband eventually paid the debt to the court.

The school filed the lawsuit after the eldest child decided to play football somewhere else, said the mother. “They run it like a business,” she said.

It was hard on the parents, but worse on the kids, she added. The classroom experience at St. Ed’s can do wonders for your children, but when there is an overdue balance on an account, students are locked out of the school’s grading system and can’t see their progress.

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