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.

Manthei, for his part, says there was nothing uncommon about the dismissal of the faculty members. "We just didn't have the students signing up for the classes so I laid these guys off," he says. Manthei calls instructor Todd Crooks, who also claims that his firing followed pressure from school officials about the investigation, a "conspiracy-monger and a jailhouse-lawyer type," blaming him for stirring up anti-administration sentiment among students.

"After I gave Todd his 30-day notice, he went into the classroom and started spouting off about all this foolishness and passing out private documents to students. We just had to say, 'Okay, Todd, you're out of here.'" The papers that Crooks was handing out were copies of the U.S. Board of Education's Notice of Intent to Terminate the school's license, the agency's official conclusions, and the phone number for students to call to register complaints or address questions, all matters of public record. The incident ended with Todd Crooks being escorted from school premises by Brian Klietz, Crooks says.

Soon thereafter, Crooks and Salstrom sued SCA for back wages, prompting the school to countersue, alleging that they failed to return original grade and attendance records. Ultimately, Salstrom and Crooks won and SCA's counterclaim was denied. "SCA already had copies of these records," Crooks contends. "The only purpose for recovering the originals was to alter or destroy them."

Cory Rasmussen

As far as Klietz's claim that the state and feds have a bias against small, private schools, evidence points in the opposite direction. "Our agency has been responsible for licensing small, private vocational schools since July, 1992," says Paul Thomas. "All such schools, and there are roughly 50 in Minnesota, are subject to relicensure on an annual basis. This is the first instance where we have issued a notice stating that we do not intend to renew a license." Jane Glickman from the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., says that in the past four years, the department has removed 672 educational institutions from the federal aid program, a statistic that she says bodes well for the department's improved efforts to protect students from poorly structured schools. As for finding fraudulent records, Glickman says that there's no way of knowing how common such instances are. "You know what fraud is. That's lying, and that's not as common. Of course, we only find a small percentage of those, and there are probably instances of schools that get away with it."

Minneapolis isn't the only place where Klietz has run afoul of the feds. An audit of Klietz's School of Communication Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina, filed last May by the U.S. Department of Education, found that school also "misrepresented programs... and gave erroneous information to students." Whether this is, as the school claims, another case in which federal officials are overreacting or a legitimate complaint remains to be seen. Until final resolution of the issues, both schools are allowed to fully operate and receive financial aid.

The mood in the hallways at SCA these days seems decidedly apprehensive, although classes continue as scheduled. Klietz, however, smiles broadly as he repeats his belief that in the end, both of his schools will be cleared of all federal and state charges and he will prove that SCA has been the victim of a smear campaign. "We've worked very hard to do a high-quality job," he says. "We are pioneers of multimedia. As you advance, it's only natural that you're going to have some problems."

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