School of Hard Knocks
Robert Allen left the School of Communication Arts in Minneapolis with a diploma in his hand certifying the successful completion of SCA's program in Computer Art and Animation. The 43-year-old truck driver, who was having so much trouble with the class that he would have dropped out immediately if any part of his tuition had been refundable, couldn't have been more stunned to have this degree conferred on him.
"I tried to stick it out," says Allen, "but I was flunking and not meeting any of the requirements. Graduation rolls around and I'm nowhere near being complete. We're all lined up and they give us these folders, so I'm thinking that there's going to be a letter in mine saying, 'You haven't completed this, you don't get your diploma.' Well, there's my diploma that says I'm a graduate from this course. My instructor didn't even turn in these grades until six weeks after the graduation, so how did I get a diploma without a grade? I got a B and have no idea how I got it."
Roberta Jensen, who recently completed SCA's program in computer graphic design, is also at a loss to explain how the school decided who had earned a diploma. "We got a new instructor two weeks before we were supposed to graduate. He didn't know our work or understand the point system that we had been graded on by our previous instructor, Deb Salstrom. He finally told us that he didn't believe in grades and he gave us all As," she says.
Jensen and Allen's accounts wouldn't usually raise an eyebrow. As SCA administrators are eager to point out, students sometimes have unrealistic and confused expectations regarding their academic performance. But these stories happen to corroborate federal and state findings that charge the school with erratic admission policies, fiscal irresponsibility, misrepresentation, and the falsification of records.
Housed in a nondescript building just off a service road alongside Highway 7 in Minneapolis, SCA is a private vo-tech school that promises its 400-plus students a variety of programs to prepare them for careers in high-tech graphic-arts fields. Students, who shell out anywhere from $25,000 for a two-year program to $6,690 for a six-month certificate, are supposed to have access to cutting-edge computers and software packages and are supposed to emerge ready to go to work. But last February, the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office notified SCA of its decision not to renew the school's license based on findings that the school provided "false and misleading information" to the state and to prospective students and failed to provide appropriate facilities. Soon after the state announced the license revocation, SCA owner and President Roger Klietz received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education stating that it planned to terminate the school's eligibility to receive federal funds because a routine federal review indicated a serious failure to meet "standards of administrative capability and financial responsibility"; fines were set at $145,000 and the agency demanded repayment of nearly $2 million in federal funds that it felt were misused by SCA.
As one example of its concerns about SCA's fiscal practices, the Education Department cites the case of SCA employee Susan Winge. In August 1991, Klietz sued Winge in Hennepin County District Court, claiming she had embezzled anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 in her post as a bookkeeper. "Today, Susan Winge confessed to me that she embezzled from the company," Klietz wrote in an affidavit. "She admitted forging my signature on those [company] checks." SAC voluntarily dismissed the case seven months later, before it came to trial. Winge, who reportedly repaid some of the money, was subsequently appointed the school's director of financial aid.
"I made a mistake but I talked to them [SCA Vice President Kathy Dale and Klietz] about it," Winge said in a recent interview. "I made good on it and they do trust me." After the federal audit, Winge was removed from the position of director of financial aid and made the assistant to the director, with Dale assuming the director's position in what Winge called "a measure taken by Kathy Dale to appease the feds."
There is much at stake in the resolution of these contentions, not the least of which is the value of the degrees. The 40-page letter from the Education Department details several charges, including instances of altering student attendance and grade records, failure to submit proper reports, failure to maintain accurate accounting records, and the usage of commissions, bonuses, and other incentives by SCA to recruit students, a serious breach of its program participation agreement, and a practice to which SCA admitted.
Federal findings that SCA paid staff bonuses for signing new students as well as other "recruitment incentives" goes a long way toward explaining the plight of Robert Allen and other students who sensed major discrepancies in the school's admissions policies. Although SCA's catalog states that student candidates "must have completed the program in Computer Art and Animation, or demonstrate substantial animation skills through a computer animation portfolio" in order to enter the 3D Computer Animation program, Allen, for instance, was shooed through the door without any of these prerequisites.
"I took a tour of the school and was led to believe that it was a very simplified course," he explains. "I had none of the prerequisites, no art training, no animation training, no graphics training. There was no room for me in what I thought was the introductory course, so Darcy Cross, my 'guidance counselor,' asked me if I would wait 'til September to start. I said, 'No, either you take me now in this class or I'll go to Brown Institute.' So Darcy gave me a little test on a little piece of paper, draw a straight line here or there," he continues. "At this point I didn't really want to go there, so I attempted to flunk the test. I never saw my test again after it was taken out of the room. Darcy came back in 15 minutes and said I'd passed and that he'd found me a spot.
"I get home that evening and call him back and say, 'Hey, there's been a mistake, I'm in the more advanced class instead of the introductory class.' He tells me not to worry about it because the first class is just introductory and I know DOS commands. I got in there on the first day of class and figured out I was in the wrong spot, it was much more advanced. There were people in there who were artists along with guys like me in there who couldn't tell you one end of the pencil from the other."
If Allen he had been a more wary consumer, he says, he would have seen the problems right from the start. Making matters worse, he says, his instructor seemed unprepared to deal with students with different levels of expertise. "There really wasn't any curriculum," he explains. "Nobody knew what to teach, and pretty soon our instructor was teaching by the seat of his pants. He'd go home at night and whip up something for the next morning or we'd go through something he'd thought of in class. It was a big mess."
Dozens of students echo Allen's feelings of resentment, with their complaints ranging from not receiving job-placement assistance to not getting the instruction, curriculum, and use of materials and facilities promised them in their contracts with the school. The situation is so bad, one local lawyer currently in negotiation with SCA on behalf of several students who want tuition refunds refused to go on the record about his clients' cases. The exposure, he fears, could encourage other student complaints. "It could quite easily turn into a class-action suit, which might force the school into Chapter 11," he says. "If everybody complains, the claims will be so high that the school wouldn't be able to pay, and I'm not in this for the exercise of it."
"There is no question that the school has serious problems," says Jason Kliewer, who expects to graduate in February. "I went into computer art and animation after taking the prerequisite computer graphic design and was a little surprised to find people in there who had never used a computer before in their lives. It seemed like there were different prerequisites--basically whatever it took to fill the class."
Students with complaints, administrators say, are malcontents, and in some cases are being used as pawns in SCA's increasingly thorny tangle of legal troubles. That's how administrators dismissed a letter of itemized grievances sent in July to the private, nonprofit Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology by a group of SCA photography students. In their letter, the students charged that they were "completely dissatisfied and disappointed with the level of education" they had received, were stuck with extremely limited access to facilities and defective equipment, and had been charged different tuition prices for the same course.
SCA responded that the students' complaints to the accrediting agency were part of an organized vendetta prompted by the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office, which it alleged was out to get the school. "I believe that the students who made this complaint have been coached by Paul Thomas of MHESO in order to facilitate his continuing vendetta against SCA's president, Roger Klietz," Mike Manthei, then the school's director of education, responded. "This is a rather convoluted issue and is even more obfuscated by MHESO's involvement." The students, most of whom had never spoken to Paul Thomas, were baffled by this response.
Serious students, avers the school's Vice President Kathy Dale, wouldn't have time to complain because they would be busy doing their school work. As an example, she points to Jennifer Sealy, a computer-graphics and animation student who spent two years and $23,000 getting her degree. In June, Sealy waved her diploma in front of a KMSP Channel 9 reporter during that station's investigation of the school, griping, "I got this piece of paper out of it, but that's about all." Klietz dismisses KMSP's piece as "yellow and extravagant journalism."
"Sealy didn't voice one concern while she was here," Klietz says. He describes her as "a mediocre student at best," adding that in his opinion, Sealy was prompted to speak badly about the school by disgruntled ex-instructors.
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."
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.)
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."
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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