The Asperger Connection School, which announced its arrival in Durham in January, has already suspended classes.
School operations collapsed amid questions from parents and former teachers with the school's first location in Pikeville, who raised concerns over finances and what they call founder Nancy Black's "controlling" behavior.
Black, also the executive director, opened The Asperger Connection School in Pikeville in Wayne County last August. Annual tuition started out at $3,000 before it rose to $6,000 in October.
The Pikeville school remains open.
The higher tuition wasn't enough to cover expenses, however, and the school owes about $25,900 in unpaid wages to teachers, according to five open complaints of six complaints filed with the N.C. Department of Labor, said Dolores Quesenberry, the department's communications director.
In January, the Durham school opened with an annual tuition of $20,000.
When parents and teachers who left the school learned of the second location, they sounded alarm bells.
"Basically, she's planning on gouging people in Durham because they have a higher socio-economic standard than people in Pikeville," said Hunter Smith, whose 8-year-old son attends the Pikeville school. "That really rubbed me the wrong way."
Black, who said the Durham location's tuition was higher because of demographics and to pay for higher teacher salaries, said the school is still holding online classes and that she wants to reopen in August.
She calls the complaints "bullying" and "harassing."
"We've been dealing with this negative publicity campaign," she said. "I don't know why it's there. I don't know what the end result is, other than they want the school to close."
Parents and former teachers says Black's original business plan did not work and she made it worse by not taking responsibility for the mistakes, not sharing financial information and not delegating responsibility.
"The fundamental problem is all this secrecy," Smith said.The digital model
When asked about the criticism, Black said it's mostly coming from teachers who have left.
"Those teachers and those staff members are no longer at the school, so they don't even know how the school is functioning. They were in fact not involved in the digital model," Black said.
Smith and other parents said they had looked forward to the Asperger Connection School, which boasted an innovative all-digital curriculum supplemented by horseback riding once a week and daily outside play time.
Children with Asperger's Syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum, often have high sensitivity to stimuli, poor social skills and intelligence focused on specific areas of knowledge.
The K-12 school's plan was to provide the students with a comfortable environment and learning style more suited to their needs.
The schools in Pikeville and Durham also provided a refuge for many parents frustrated with public schools, where they say the children are often ostracized on the playground and are stressed by the schoolwork and the chaotic environment.
Black, who previously was in the food service and manufacturing industries, said she spent about 10 years working with North Carolina public schools to develop a program for children with Asperger's.
She is also a former N.C. Department of Health and Human Services' Consumer and Family Advisory Committee member.Grant fell through
The Pikeville school had trouble making payroll as early as September, said former principal Karin O'Donnell, because a grant did not come through. Teachers were paid for one week in September, she said.
In October, O'Donnell left the school after an accident on the playground injured her shoulder, leaving her to receive worker's compensation. Still, she and her husband are owed about $12,000 for work at the school, she said.
By December, health insurance also was suspended for the teachers, O'Donnell and several teachers said.
To O'Donnell's knowledge, 12 of the original 16 teachers and staff members have left the Pikeville location, leading her to question the stability of the school, which still has about 30 students.
"You've got to have sound financial planning," O'Donnell said.
"You can't put academic professionals at risk and then not expect that stress issues won't affect the environment of learning, because they will."Financial questions
Black repeatedly declined to provide details on the school's finances.
She also declined to say how many students were attending the Durham school before it suspended classes.
One parent in the Durham location, Sandra Vestal, who enrolled her son and also was slated to teach there, has been ironing out financial terms with Black to leave the school.
The Durham location was in Bethesda United Methodist Church at 2309 S. Miami Blvd. The church is not affiliated with the school.
Black says the media has portrayed her unfairly, but when asked for names of supportive teachers and parents, she declined to provide any.
Parents and former teachers like Smith and O'Donnell paint a picture of controlling behavior from Black, in which she would allegedly shout, "My school! My rules!" to the staff.
Black said she never shouted such things at the staff and used the phrase for just the children: "I have the phrase, 'my school, my rules,' and I say it very slowly, very distinctly and in a deep voice.""I don't think that's overly controlling, and I don't appreciate anyone saying that to me," Black said, then added, "There was a former teacher who was there, who would say in a very high-pitched voice, 'One two three, eyes on me.' I don't think people appreciated that."
Black also said the teachers who left did not follow the digital curriculum and used too much paper. She said she measured how much paper teachers left behind.
One teacher's pile measured 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and another's measured 4 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
Black also has fired back specifically at O'Donnell for an email she sent to parents about the school's financial and academic situations near Christmas and for continuing to speak on the school.
"Why won't she just give up and go away?" Black said. "Why won't she just get her retirement check and have a life? Why would she continue to persecute us all?"No backup plan
When asked what mistakes she has made with the school, Black replied:
"Not having a backup plan to the principal falling down. Not realizing that when the principal was not available to perform her job, that I would have to stop fundraising and attend to that."
The school is no longer a nonprofit and is filing incorporation papers with the N.C. Secretary of State.
The school also no longer has board members, leaving Black in the sole leadership position.Many parents happy
Despite the problems at the Asperger Connection School, many of the parents who have enrolled their children plan to keep them there.
Smith, for one, said he is keeping his son, Holden, at the school because he has improved his social skills and begun developing leadership qualities.
That's encouraging news after years of frustration in other schools.
"He's happy in this school, and he's in an environment where he's not ostracized," Smith said. "I can't tell you what it's like to not have to worry every day about my cellphone ringing from teachers or the principal about his actions in class."