NYC Private School Parents Hit With Tuition Bill Lawsuits

Some parents who are choosing to forgo enrolling their children in expensive private schools are, nonetheless, finding themselves on the hook for the entire price of tuition, the New York Times reports. Although many private schools work with those who decide not to attend after the enrollment deadline had passed and the contracts have been signed, some families are now being sued for the remainder of the fees even if their reason for not attending is financial difficulties.

One such case is Nicole Smolowitz whose son got accepted into Upper West Side's Mandell School and who paid the $7,500 deposit that guaranteed his spot. The family changed their minds due to worsening financial circumstances, and, in late April, notified Mandell that they will not be enrolling after all.

She did not expect to get her deposit back — but she was told she had to pay the remaining $26,250, as well.

"It's April," she said she told them. "I will find someone for you to take my child's spot." The school told her that was not how things were done. Then, in September, Mandell sued.

On the face of it, Mandell, along with five other schools who have chosen to sue families for tuition fees since 2009, has a strong case. After all, parents signed the contracts that committed them to enrolling their kids in the schools, and being forced to make the schools whole is black-letter contract law. Various schools have different deadlines after which the entire balance becomes due, with some, like Mandell, as early as late March and some, like the Trinity School, as late as July. If the parents change their mind before the cut-off date, all they lose is the deposit. While that still means a loss of several thousand dollars, it's a small price to pay compared to more than $20,000 they're frequently billed if they change their minds afterwards.

While financial strain is an oft-cited reason for parents withdrawing their children from private schools, another factor is the availability of public gifted-and-talented programs. Often, the deadline for parents to commit to a private school comes before the city's Education Department sends acceptance letters for the gifted programs, which it is expected to do this year in late May.

Many families who end up having to face the schools in court draw inspiration for the so-called Gunderson case. After Sarah Brooks, whose son had accepted a spot at the Park West Montessori School, received an offer of a tenure-track teaching position at a college in Virginia and tried to back out of the enrollment contract as a result, she and the son's father Erik Gunderson were sued for the remainder of the $19,300 tuition bill. The school chose not to go ahead with the lawsuit when, during the discovery process, the couple's lawyer, Brooks' father Russel Brooks, asked the schools to provide the documentation backing their claim of financial harm from losing their son as a student.

"They had no damages," Mr. Brooks said. "The entire contract amount — the deposit amount plus what they were seeking — would be a windfall to them, because they could fill up the spot in the class from the waiting list."

Kathy Roemer, executive director of Twin Parks Montessori Schools, which includes Park West, said the Gundersons' deposit had not been refunded. The court denied the school's counterclaim for the remaining tuition, and while Dr. Roemer called that ruling "contrary to basic contract law," the school did not pursue the case because "the amount was too small."

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