About seven years after the formation of Keystone Schools by local entrepreneur and businessman Don Willis, the schools closed with Willis citing a tough economy and financial troubles as the culprits.
The buildings have since been sold, the school's existence mostly forgotten – except in the minds of some of the school's former teachers, who said they taught unpaid for the last two months before the school's Laverne Avenue location officially closed.
The News-Sentinel interviewed some of the school's former teachers, three of whom agreed to be quoted for the story, to hear their account of that last year at Keystone.
Willis said at a meeting sometime after Jan. 1, 2010, and before the end of the school year, teachers agreed to “terms of extended payment.” None of the teachers The News-Sentinel spoke with claimed to know about any such agreement. When asked to elaborate on the agreement, Willis said, “It's not my job or my intent to discuss what we decided as a school family.”
He said some of the teachers may be unhappy with what a large group of 20 to 30 teachers agreed upon and that proceeds from the school building or its sale were never part of the agreement Willis spoke of.
In 2003, Willis picked up the pieces of Fort Wayne Christian Schools after its two locations were scheduled for closure due to financial problems.
The next school year, Willis opened Keystone Schools at both of Fort Wayne Christian Schools' previous locations: a K-12 school at 1801 Laverne Ave., and what became a campus for 2-year-olds through kindergarten at 5421 Homestead Road.
Enrollment at the school was estimated at about 200 students, and Willis hoped to add about 100 more the next year.
At the time, Keystone officials were quoted as saying they wanted “a Christian school presence in Allen County.”
Willis' FourD Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization, provided financial support for the school. The foundation is notable for sponsoring an academic summer program for students in grades K-12 called MASTer — music, arts, sciences and technology — camp.
According to a News-Sentinel story in 2004, Willis hired a new leader for the school to implement a new, differentiated teaching philosophy. The educational model took “a one-room schoolhouse” approach where students were taught at their proficiency level, not their age, in every subject, Willis said at the time.
Former Keystone Schools teacher Steve Riethmiller said he was surprised when Keystone Schools opened in the 2009-2010 school year. The previous school year was the last for Keystone Schools' southwest location due to financial troubles, so it was a surprise to some teachers that Willis would keep the Laverne Avenue location open.
Willis' FourD Education Foundation was supporting the school financially, due to lack of revenue, and he attributed the school's financial problems to parents' inability to make tuition payments.
In the school's final year, tuition was cut to about $2,500 – from about $4,500 to $5,000 per student – to encourage enrollment, said DeLynn Johnston, the parent of two students who attended Keystone.
Available funds supported the school through November, said former Keystone teachers.
To help the school and its manager Dacia Michaels – Don Willis' daughter and the executive director of FourD Education Foundation – teachers agreed to take pay cuts.
School staff members and the entire janitorial staff were laid off shortly after. Johnston said a parent committee and school families volunteered to clean the school on different nights of the week.
Remaining school employees' health insurance was cut in December, but in August their health insurance deductible had risen to about $10,000.
Parents, grandparents and teachers were urged to make donations to the school to help with the revenue shortfall. Veteran teachers often went without paychecks to ensure younger teachers without other sources of income could be paid in full.
“A lot of teachers gave back portions of the paychecks or went without pay to keep the school open,” Johnston said.
For Christmas, a tree was set up in a common area at the school, teachers said. Ornaments placed on the tree included dollar amounts and vendors written on them, in the hopes that parents and teachers would take an ornament and help the school pay some bills or buy items like toilet paper.
In January, teachers stopped receiving paychecks altogether, and parents began pulling their students out of the school.
In February 2010, Willis and school officials met with parents in a closed meeting to discuss options for the school, including immediate closure. At that time, parents were told the school required $450,000 to stay afloat until the end of the school year.
The families that remained continued to help support the school through the spring.
Johnston was involved in a number of fundraisers to bring in revenue for the school, including a dinner and silent auction. She said she wasn't sure how much money was raised from the entire program, but remembered that the silent auction raised about $3,000.
Johnston said the money had no stipulations and couldn't say if it was used to pay teachers.
It was reported that teachers voted to stop returning to work on May 21. Riethmiller and other former teachers said those reports were false.
Teachers were given permission by the state Department of Education to declare May 21 the last day of school for Keystone students. Teachers submitted grades up to that point, and students were able to graduate and receive full credit for the year.
Reports from former teachers said parent fundraisers caught teacher paychecks up to March, but they remained unpaid through August. Keystone teachers received paychecks year-round, so although they weren't teaching in the summer months, they were still owed a paycheck, per their salary schedule.
According to former Keystone administrator Frank Murphy, the model for the school didn't work because it required an enrollment of about 350 students.
“For the school to stay open, it needed to hit that projection,” said Murphy, former director of spiritual formation at Keystone. “You can't run a (350-)student budget on a 200-student income.”
From the beginning, FourD Education Foundation was supplementing the school's income. Willis said at the time those donations, which covered half the budget, had dried up, and he blamed the economy.
“I know that we've not had the enrollment we would like,” Willis said in a previous story. “The parents have not been successful about getting other parents to cough up money. ... If we had a free school, we would be packed to the gills.”
It appeared that around the same time Keystone closed, Willis was facing his own financial troubles.
In September 2010, Tower Bank and Trust Company filed a civil suit against Willis and his wife, Doris, to begin the foreclosure process on the couple's home on Forest Park Boulevard. According to court records, at that time Willis owed a total of $765,000, including late charges and fees.
Don Willis was an engineer with Magnavox for 22 years before leaving the company to form Command Systems, Inc., which developed specialized software for the defense industry. Defense contractor General Dynamics bought the company in 2002 for about $100 million.
Shortly after the successful sale, Willis founded three organizations: FourD Education Foundation, FourD Development, LLC and FourthWave, LLC, according to Willis's biography on the FourthWave website.
The same year Willis started Keystone, IPFW completed a $2.3 million bridge connecting its campus with new student housing. According to university reports, the plan was to name the structure “Bridge to the Future,” a tribute to the prosperity and growth of the campus.
That was until Don Willis made the largest donation to the university in 40 years. The $3 million Willis pledged in 2003 was to be broken down in $1 million chunks used for an endowed chair of the entrepreneur-in-residence program, student scholarships and unrestricted use.
At the dedication of the bridge, IPFW Chancellor Mike Wartell touted Willis' FourthWave as a company that “prides itself on doing things differently, on being strategically responsive, on constantly re-educating itself.”
He said Willis and the university are strong believers in this philosophy, so it was fitting the bridge instead be named the Willis Family Bridge, becoming a symbol of innovation and change for IPFW.
But Willis' financial woes also affected his pledge to the university.
Walt Branson, Vice Chancellor of Financial Affairs at IPFW said Willis has not paid the $3 million donation in full, but would not say how much is still owed.
The money is paid through the university's foundation, which is not a public entity; therefore, it is not required to disclose such information.
Branson said the university has experienced a slowdown in pledge payments, as the economy has made it difficult for some to meet those financial obligations.
Branson did say that the position of the endowed chair remains unfilled and that about $23,000 in scholarships has been given from the money Willis has paid.
The building at 1801 Laverne Ave. bears no resemblance to the former school that was once housed there. The Keystone School sign has been removed, along with the eagle on top of the building that was the school's mascot. The building is being gutted and renovated to create housing for senior citizens.
The school's former students have graduated or moved on to different schools. Some of its teachers have retired, moved and found other jobs.
Dana Howard taught preschool and kindergarten students at Keystone's southwest location, starting in 2006. When that campus closed, she moved to the school on Laverne Avenue.
Howard tried to find a teaching job after the school closed, but has been unsuccessful.
Recently, Howard's unemployment ran out. As a widow, she's supporting herself and her daughter with a part-time job.
She's now going back to school to change careers to become a medical assistant.
Riethmiller said he taught at Keystone for about four years after retiring from Southwest Allen County Schools, where he taught for more than 30 years. He was able to secure a teaching job at Horizon Christian Academy, which opened the year after Keystone closed. That school is headed by Keystone's former executive director, Tammy Henline, who declined to comment for this story.
Sherrylene Gerber, a 38-year veteran of Fort Wayne Community Schools, had taught Japanese and German at Keystone for five years when the school closed. Gerber said after teaching in public schools for nearly four decades, she was ready for what she believed to be a more Christian environment.
The three former Keystone teachers estimated they are still owed six to eight paychecks, which for a full-time teacher would be about $8,000. This doesn't include payment for unused sick or vacation time. They also estimated 10-15 former teachers are still owed money.
“We all deserve the money, no matter what our situation is,” Howard said. “We were told we would be paid. The Christian thing to do would be to pay us what's owed. Teaching was my life.”
Despite not being paid since March, teachers stayed until May 21 to ensure students would graduate and receive credit for the entire school year.
“When the money ran out, our concern was with the kids, and we did make it right,” Riethmiller said.
None would say the same for Willis and Michaels.
“We've not heard the words, 'We messed up,'” Gerber said. “Back pay might be an acknowledgement of that.”
“He needs to make it right,” she continued. “We believe he has the money, he just won't pay us.”
On July 13, 2011, a motion was filed to dismiss the civil suit against Don and Doris Willis for foreclosure of their home, because all claims and debts had been settled, according to court documents.
The dismissal came one day after the Keystone School site on Laverne Avenue was sold to G & L Land Development LLC for $1 million.
Riethmiller said even before the Keystone building on Laverne sold, Michaels and Willis didn't allow any materials such as textbooks or microscopes to leave the building, and they made it clear that no teacher was allowed on the premises once the school had closed.
Willis and Michaels held a public auction for the materials that were left inside the school, many of which sold for much less than their worth, teachers said.
Gerber said Michaels prevented many former teachers from purchasing items at the auction.
“I watched them sell off things we could have used,” Gerber said.
Gerber said she had to approach someone who had already bought some textbooks to buy a couple Japanese and German textbooks.
Willis told The News-Sentinel that the building was a “real estate investment” and “has nothing to do with the school” when asked if any proceeds from the sale will be used to pay former teachers.
“Discussions about that aren't public and I do not wish to comment,” he said.
The building was sold by Keystone Holdings, LLC. The company's address is listed as 2000 N. Wells St., the same address listed on Keystone Schools' website for students to send transcript and other school records requests.
The campus located at 2000 N. Wells St. is a former site of the YWCA, and campus buildings house Willis' FourD Education Foundation, which ran the school, as well as the charter school Imagine MASTer Academy, which Willis founded.
The second Keystone Schools campus, on Homestead Road, was sold in April 2010 for $300,000.
During the same year, Willis' FourthWave Building on Main Street was sold to Arts United for $2.2 million.
Former Keystone teachers still feel betrayed by the way Willis and Michaels have treated them.
“I stayed to help the kids,” Gerber said of working without pay. “They needed the knowledge and credits to transfer.”
“It was just kind of sad,” she continued. “We invested in that school. It hurt.”
“He's refused to meet his contractual obligation,” Riethmiller said of Willis. “We went to bat for the school. We stayed until the kids were OK.”
Willis maintains an agreement was reached with the teachers regarding his responsibility for their payment, but would not elaborate on the agreement or provide proof of such agreement.