Friday, June 30, 2017

Our Departure from The Learning Village

It is with bitter disappointment that I write this post, but I feel it is necessary to explain the reasons that my family and I will no longer return to The Learning Village or work with Teri Verhine in any capacity in the future.

We have been part of this homeschool community since I was pregnant with Sean, over 9 years. We have found friends and friends-who-are-family, worked and played together. We found so many of our people and I love that no matter what comes in the future that we will always have that connection. We felt welcomed and included and were grateful to have found a secular group. I give Teri credit for all of the things she did to make this community a reality.

In 2013, I began to work for TLV (then, GA-EPH) as an instructor, hoping to offset the cost of my children’s classes with the money I could make as an instructor. I also served on an “advisory board” (not a Board of Directors in any true sense of the word) of parents to help give feedback on policies, etc. I worked at TLV for three years, leaving in May 2016. GA-EPH, and now TLV, which are separate unique corporations, both operate(d) as a Georgia domestic nonprofit organization. Neither had obtained (or applied for, to my knowledge) 501(c)3 tax-exempt status with the IRS, though I have emails as far back as 2013 stating the intent to file for 501(c)3.

During my three years working as an independent contractor, I experienced numerous delays in receiving the payments due to me. Over time, it became apparent that other instructors experienced this, too. Sometimes, I let the money owed to me go toward the costs of my children’s classes for the next session. I stopped requesting that this be done and insisted on payment rather than allowing the float, partly out of concerns that it could artificially lower my gross income and get me in trouble with the IRS, and also because I had begun to have concerns over the cash flow management at TLV.

In each of the three years I taught there, it was easy enough to collect payments owed to me in Sessions 1 and (usually) 2. It was much more difficult to collect payments in the second semester, Sessions 3 & 4.

I was given the following reasons for my delayed payments:

  • The check was lost in the mail, and had to have a stop payment put on it, and another check issued (this is the reason I received most often)
  • Forgotten checkbook
  • Forgotten checks
  • The checkbook was in Teri’s possession but lacked actual checks
  • She had my checks for a long time but didn’t volunteer to give them to me, expecting only to pay me when I asked for it
  • Unsigned checks
  • Check made out to the wrong person or entity (as I was offering my fitness classes under the umbrella of my other job, those classes were paid directly to my work)

If one or another of these things had happened once, maybe twice, it would have been understandable and I would have overlooked the occasional oversight. However, these things all happened to me at least once, many of them multiple times, over the three years (24 total class session) I was there.

I began to get frustrated by the end of my first year, and certainly well into the second year. After talking with other instructors, I learned that I was not the only person to experience slow payments and to hear these excuses, which was alarming. I remembered receiving and delivering “lost in the mail” checks on behalf of another instructor going as far back as 2010.
I regret to say that I had a role in enabling this behavior. It was only toward the end of my working relationship with Teri that I began to complain. Why? Partly, I didn’t want to rock the boat. My kids and I were happy in this community. Partly, I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. Partly, it just felt like a jerky thing to do. Mostly, I didn’t speak up sooner or more directly because I DESPERATELY wanted to keep the wonderful aspects of this community going. I wanted to see my friends, I wanted my kids to see their friends. I appreciated the wonderful learning experiences we all had.

I began to become aware that this was taking a toll on me, though. I would avoid asking Teri for my check sometimes because I just knew I couldn’t stand to be lied to and disappointed yet again. I just couldn’t face being handed another excuse. So I’d give her longer than I should have before asking for payment.

Because my fitness classes were offered via my other job, I was in the unfortunate position on many separate occasions of having to tell my boss that his check was still forthcoming, and making him aware that I had concerns about slow payment. I felt terrible about exposing him to this risk (of potential nonpayment), though I was prepared to eat that cost if it ever became necessary for me to do so, so he would not be financially harmed because of my continuing to work for Teri though I had concerns about not being able to collect money due to me.

Once, I wrote her asking for my checks, upset that I hadn’t received them. It turned out I was asking for them prematurely. I had gotten so upset and jumped the gun, expecting that I’d encounter yet another delay. Teri informed me that I was asking early and I told her I had misunderstood the policy. This is important because since then, she has used this single incident on multiple occasions as a way of suggesting that I had misread my contract and therefore my other complaints about slow payment are somehow to be dismissed. She did this to me in the meeting yesterday, in fact, as I expected her to.

In January 2016, I informed Teri I would not be returning the next year to teach. The precipitating event for this was not over money, though I had had to wait for my final check from the previous semester for nearly 6 weeks, due to it being “lost in the mail.” Rather, she had raised her voice to me in what I felt to be an unprofessional manner in front of colleagues and customers over my fitness equipment. Again, giving her the benefit of the doubt and understanding that everyone loses their cool sometimes, I waited until the weekend to email her about the incident, requesting that such matters be handled more professionally in the future. I received no response, but was informed that she was discussing my email with other colleagues and parents in person the next time we had class.

Given that she hadn’t responded to my email or acknowledged it in any way, I believed that I had no choice but to resign. I made myself a promise long ago after working in a couple of similarly unprofessional environments that I would never do it again. On top of this incident, by this point I had grave concerns about this pattern of slow payment. It was time for me to be done working for Teri. This decision wasn’t made lightly, especially considering that it involved a significant reduction in the income I could provide for my family.

However, we weren’t quite ready to quit TLV altogether. Our beloved teachers were all there, one was returning to teaching there after a break.

I was on the fence about returning, because collecting the final checks due to me at the end of Session 4 in 2016 was extremely challenging. After several days and back and forth texting about how my checks were still outstanding, I finally told her I didn’t believe her any more (this time, it was that she had mailed them to me the day after classes ended, so they must have been “lost in the mail” again). She sent an email to (supposedly) all of the instructors from Session 4 explaining that several people hadn’t received checks, and claiming to have mailed them out. The instructors were BCC’d so we had no idea of knowing who had received this email. I responded, copying all instructors directly. I learned later that there were instructors not included in on this original email.

From there, Teri and I and some of the other instructors began a back and forth discussion about the slow payment issue. It was a heated email thread, but the outcome of it was that several instructors collected payment and Teri developed an invoice and payment schedule for the next year’s instructors. While still extremely unhappy about my experience, I made peace with the fact that things would improve going forward. My family remained at TLV as students for the 2016/17 year.

Imagine my extreme disappointment upon learning this spring that instructors, one of whom teaches my own children, were still having trouble collecting their payments. I don’t think disappointed covers it: livid, heartbroken, nauseous. That begins to describe it.

When it became known that there were changes to the instructor contracts coming up this next year that made no sense (requiring teachers to roll in supply fees and have their 20% cut to Teri taken out of the new total, instead of passing through expenses as expenses), when we were being asked to donate more time on top of money to the “village,” when vague fundraising plans were being discussed, people began to ask questions about how the money is being used at TLV. For maybe the first time, parents and customers and onlookers became aware of the ongoing issue with paying instructors in a timely manner, though of course it had been an open secret among instructors for many years.

I don’t want to rehash those discussions, which all took place within the last few weeks. The end result is that we did not receive clear answers to these very reasonable questions. The end result is that any hope of communicating about and resolving this issue was cut off when Teri closed those threads to comments and instituted administrators to approve posts.

Why isn’t the money paid to teachers on time when it is all collected up front from the parents? I still don’t understand. I have yet to receive any clear answers on why paying instructors on time (to the tune of thousands of dollars a session) is such a problem. Why remembering to bring a checkbook–with checks in it– is such a hassle. Why knowing who to make a check out to is challenging. Why instructors can’t be paid directly via PayPal, or even have the parents pay teachers directly. Why the US Postal Service is so incompetent in only her neighborhood. Why some instructors were routinely paid on time and others weren’t.
As a result of the Facebook discussions in the last couple of weeks, seven instructors have pulled their classes from TLV. Many families, including mine, are pulling out completely.

Teri held a community meeting yesterday, June 29, which I attended, in part to contradict her when she tried to make it sound like my complaints about slow payment stemmed from MY misunderstanding/misreading of my contract, as if I am/was to blame, as if this issue was only ever isolated to me, on one occasion. She cut me off before I could finish listing out all of the excuses I had personally experienced over the years. I’m glad I attended and glad I spoke up.

It infuriates me to write this, but even as she was trying to insinuate that my issue with getting paid was both a single incident and also my fault, even as another instructor contradicted her claims that instructors for 2016/17 were paid on time according to her schedule, she failed to bring a checkbook yesterday that had checks in it, to pay two instructors what she owes them.

Ultimately, this is about trust. I don’t trust Teri, and haven’t for a long time, to follow through with payments (or refunds due to parents, or doing things like sending out checks for drama scripts) in a responsible, timely manner. I don’t trust her to pay the instructors of my children as agreed upon. She has, repeatedly and for many years, taken advantage of my own willingness to let things slide in the interest of keeping up appearances for the sake of our children and the community at large.

I simply don’t believe anything she says, and I cannot sanction TLV or any enterprise in which she is involved with my presence or my money.

My family and I recently had a heart to heart discussion about all of this, and in the end, we were all pretty much in tears over our agreement that we need to leave TLV. But it is morally necessary. I only regret not speaking out more loudly and clearly in the past, and for staying long past the time when I knew Teri could not be trusted.

I do have copies of all of my text exchanges and email, as well as screenshots of the latest FB conversations (should those be deleted, as I expect they will). I have evidence that backs up my direct experience.
Though I hope they will, I don’t expect other instructors and parents to be as vocal as I am choosing to be about my experience. This is an individual thing to decide, and there are many factors in play here, including what is best to do for oneself and one’s family, and it’s a difficult thing to think about and make a decision about.

I do hope, though, that more instructors and parents will choose to speak about their experiences publicly, if only to corroborate what I am saying here. My other hope is that those who choose to continue their association with TLV will be vigilant, ask questions, insist on payments and refunds as agreed upon in a timely manner. I want these matters to remain in the light, or else they will never be solved, and the community (and children) will continue to suffer the consequences.

I stand by everything I have written here.

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