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Valley School Beset by Debt, Lease Problems

July 09, 2002|DAVID PIERSON and WENDY THERMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Castlemont School in Woodland Hills closed for the summer a month ago, and parents wonder if it will reopen this fall, after the principal announced that the private elementary school was $1 million in debt and renewal of its lease in doubt.

The school's 10-year lease with Los Angeles Unified School District expires in August, and the district plans to sell the Collier Street site to the highest bidder or convert it back into a public school, said Harold Kwalwasser, general counsel for L.A. Unified.

The school's debt was caused by a drastic drop in enrollment in the last three years, said Principal Martin Duberstein, who bought the school in 1984 after teaching there since 1970.

Today, Castlemont has 70 students, down from 335 in 1999. Uncertainty about the lease caused the exodus, Duberstein said.

"I'm not angry, and I don't blame them [for leaving]," the principal said. "They were looking for security."

Parents have also raised questions about Castlemont's finances.

The school, where tuition is $11,500 a year, stopped paying teachers June 8, when funds ran out, Duberstein said. "Where did all the money go?" asked Marla Epstein, who paid $23,000 in tuition for her son and daughter to continue at Castlemont in the fall.

In interviews Monday, several angry parents accused Duberstein of mishandling the school's money, something he denies.

The principal said the school has run a deficit for several years and used new tuition to pay the previous year's debt.

That's why, he said, he won't be able to return tuition money for 39 children and 31 deposits of $1,000 each that were supposed to pay for the next school year.

Duberstein said he is working to keep the school open, adding that he is trying to secure an investor or strike a deal with a nearby private school that would funnel some of its students to Castlemont.

"I've put 32 years of my life into this, and I don't want it to end," Duberstein said. "They're going to have to pry the keys from my hands."

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