School of Hard Knocks

Former students of a local high-tech graphics training program paid up to $25,000 for their diplomas. Many say they didn't get the education they were promised. The school dismissed their complaints; state and federal authorities didn't.

If students complained to their instructors, perhaps it was because they felt no one else would listen. Roberta Jensen never formally complained, she says, because the problems seemed endless. "It got to the point where we felt like, 'What are you going to do to us now?' The administration's attitude to any complaints was, 'If you ignore them, they'll take care of themselves.'"

Former Director of Education Mike Manthei's feelings seem oddly in synch with Jensen's. Manthei, who currently works at the school part-time so he can spend more time with his child, says that in general, student complaints are unjustified. "All private and public schools get complaints," he says. "All of it can be attributed to the fact that students are the world's worst consumers and they really don't always know how to get a good education out of a place. A lot of times they're just mad about something and there's not really anything you can do to make it better. Computers crash, systems go down, the roof leaks, and students will take that out on the school because they're frustrated.

"Students look at themselves as the consumer, and that's a bad thing," he says. "You should look at the persons employing the student as the consumer. You really need to do what a student needs rather than what the student wants."

Cory Rasmussen

Student complaints are more easily dismissed than those made by state and federal authorities, which SCA administrators are eager to classify as overreactions to common bureaucratic troubles. Klietz calls the federal findings unjust and excessive, saying, "The audit from the U.S. Department of Education was an opportunity to defame the school. There is an unwritten rule that there's a bias against small, independent schools. If the IRS were as undemocratic as the Department of Education, there'd be an uprising." SCA is in the process of appealing decisions by both state and federal education officials. On the state level, SCA is scheduled to appear before an administrative law judge this November. Its case goes before the U.S. Department of Education a month later.

Klietz and his son Brian, an instructor at the school, point an accusatory finger at the recently opened Art Institute of Minnesota, which offers programs similar to SCA's. They insinuate that the newer school paid some SCA employees--particularly the institute's current dean of education, Jon Moye--to provide information to the feds so that the newer school can enjoy a monopoly.

"Roger seems to think that this other school is buying people off," says Manthei. "I don't know, that seems a little far-fetched to me. I would say it's more of a personal vendetta against Roger Klietz. Paul Thomas of MHESO has gone after the school with a real vengeance, much more than anybody would ever expect from a government agency." The state agency, Brain Klietz adds, sometimes communicated with Moye "up to 20 times a month" while Moye was at SCA. Moye, who is currently suing the school for his firing, calls Brian Klietz's allegations "wrong and defamatory." Thomas will only say that he's already heard such insinuations.

David Heath of the Northwest Division of the U.S. Department of Education has also heard the school's claims that it's been the victim of a conspiracy. "I have no knowledge of anything like that being done," he says. "Jon Moye was the director of education at SCA at the time of our investigation. In the course of our review, we interviewed a number of people. He was just one of many."

In fact, if there was any backroom wangling going on, say SCA's critics, it was on the part of the school's administrators themselves. Faculty members who filed wrongful-termination complaints in Hennepin County District Court say they were never given an official reason for their firings, but claim they were pressured about their cooperation with the federal investigation. "The seven instructors that went to the feds were all let go," claims Deborah Salstrom. "I went to a hotel where the feds had set up to meet with us. I told them what I knew because when a federal agent tells you to do something, you do it." Brian Klietz grilled her on what she revealed to the officials, she contends.

Josh Seaver, an instructor who cooperated with federal officials, says he wasn't pushed to leave by school officials--he simply got a better job offer elsewhere. Nonetheless, he says he didn't feel he had a future at SCA. "With all the chaos going on, I felt that there wasn't an environment conducive to learning," he says. "I also thought it was creepy that I was asked by the school to prepare the same documents for the state on the school's behalf at least three or four times because they kept disappearing mysteriously." (The Education Department investigation eventually concluded that SCA didn't deliver enough hours of classroom instruction to qualify the program for federal financial aid, and that attendance records had been falsified. The institution sometimes made up that time with unsupervised lab hours, which the department considered inferior. SCA says it has since changed that practice.)

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