The demise of an elite preschool in Northeast Portland has led to allegations of financial deception against a well-regarded figure in the state's Montessori education movement.
Two parents have filed lawsuits in small-claims court against Tiny Revolution Montessori, a preschool on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for children, 3 months through 6 years old. The school's owner, Kari Wax, announced the closure suddenly Sept. 4, the Sundaybefore Labor Day.
The parents allege in court filings that the school billed them for September tuition—up to $1,213 per student—even after settling an eviction case July 27 and agreeing the school would vacate its MLK storefront by Aug. 31.
"It's the only school [my son] knew for four and half years," says Shannon Grzybowski, who says she is preparing to file a lawsuit against Wax. "We're crushed. My kids want to know what happened to the school, so I told them, 'Kari stole our money and closed the school.'"
Wax tells WW she thought there was a way to keep the school open. She hoped to work out a way to stay in the space, even after signing the agreement to leave. She says she is working with a lawyer to repay September tuition.
"It was never my plan for this to happen," Wax says, noting she sold personal possessions to try to keep the business afloat. "It closed anyway. This has been devastating for my family as well."
It's remarkable for a preschool to leave parents scrambling just as the school year begins, let alone for the operator to be accused of deception. But the allegations against Tiny Revolution cut to the center of the local Montessori movement—an educational philosophy, particularly popular among Portland private preschools, that prizes self-directed, hands-on learning.
Wax was well-connected. She was president of the board at the Ivy School, the Montessori charter school in Northeast Portland, until she resigned Monday. She co-founded a Montessori training enterprise, Heart and Hand, and was on the board of the Oregon Montessori Association as recently as 2014.
The two dozen children at Tiny Revolution Montessori participated in Suzuki-style violin lessons and ate "local, organic, healthy, vegetarian snacks," according to the school's blog. The Facebook page shows students hunting in the garden for small onions to peel and eat. The classroom pet was a guinea pig named Charlie.
"I don't know her personally, but from what I do know there was a lot of good in the past," says Oregon Montessori Association executive director Tammy Ulrich. "It's a very sad situation. It's not at all reflective of how Montessorians operate."
Parents, as a rule, paid their Tiny Revolution tuition by the 15th of the month. That was the case in August, two parents tell WW. By that time, Tiny Revolution had already been kicked out of its rental space by its landlord, the housing nonprofit REACH Community Development.
The eviction case, filed by REACH on July 17, says Tiny Revolution failed to pay its rent in May and June. REACH spokeswoman Lauren Schmidt says the nonprofit came to an agreement with Wax that let Tiny Revolution stay in the storefront until the end of August, when the summer term ended.
"We did extend her use of the space to allow adequate time for her to tell the parents," Schmidt says.
Grzybowski learned the school was closing via a Facebook post Sept. 4 by the Spanish immersion preschool Aprende con Amigos, which is opening a second location in the space.
She emailed Wax at 1:01 pm, confronting her about what was happening.
An hour later, Wax emailed parents announcing Tiny Revolution would not be open when the work week started.
"Unfortunately TRM has lost its lease," she wrote. "I have found TRM a great new home but can not announce the location until the paperwork and lease is finalized."
Parents say they haven't heard from her since.
But the state's Early Learning Division says there's nothing to stop Wax from opening another preschool.
"We at Early Learning Division could not block someone from opening a business because of financial mismanagement," says Karol Collymore, spokeswoman for the division's Office of Child Care. "Our rules only oversee the care and health of children, not the incorporation of their businesses."
There were warning signs of financial trouble at Tiny Revolution. In September 2014, the school abruptly dropped its after-school program, meaning there was no child care after 3:30 pm.
Court records show at least two sets of families sued after repeatedly being promised refunds.
Troy Pickard, a lawyer who successfully sued Wax in April 2015 over failure to return a deposit, says this new case is different.
"If they knew they weren't going to be running a day care in September and October and they billed their clients, that's fundamentally different than running low on cash," says Pickard.
Corrie Ragaway, who has sued Wax for $2,286 in September tuition, says she's distressed about more than the money.
"I'm heartbroken," says Ragaway. "I love the school."