Faced with what’s been described as a “shocking and sudden” perfect storm of financial troubles, according to cofounder Jim Fitzpatrick, Santa Barbara Montessori School closed its doors late last month. “It has been really tough,” said Fitzpatrick, 68, who opened the school with his wife, Frances, in 1975. “This is a difficult time. We’ve dedicated more than 40 years of our life to this, and it’s come to a screeching halt.”
Fitzpatrick said the K-6 private school — with an annual tuition between roughly $10,000 and $14,000, depending on grade level — never fully recovered from enrollment drops during the Great Recession, as numbers plunged from nearly 150 students to about 90 kids two years ago. The school adjusted by shrinking its footprint at Goleta Union School District’s El Rancho campus, where it has rented space for the past 12 years, and cutting back its staff.
“We made some major efforts to streamline operations, and we relied on a lot of volunteers,” said former board president Melissa Moreno, whose daughter is an alum. “We were on the upswing, and we really did everything we could to turn it around. Then we got hit by forces outside of our control that we were unable to overcome.” Moreno and Fitzpatrick politely declined to state what those outside forces were.
Montessori parents familiar with the situation explained that another complication arose when many families became disappointed last year as the school stopped offering instruction at a junior high level. And when those families with kids in multiple grade levels decided to leave the school, they expected full tuition refunds for each child, even those not yet in junior high classrooms. While the school was prepared to reimburse the families for their junior high kids, it would not do the same for younger children, which is consistent with contractual obligations between the school and the parents of each student. Tensions grew thick with litigious sentiment, and the school’s financial future just didn’t add up.
On December 10, the board voted unanimously to engage bankruptcy counsel. School families will be listed as creditors in the proceedings. “We [boardmembers] all feel terrible for the families, the kids, and the people who lost their jobs,” Moreno said.
After getting married in 1969, the Fitzpatricks — both Angelenos — moved to Bergamo, Italy, to study with Mario Montessori, son of Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who pioneered early-childhood educational techniques and fundamentals in human learning more than 100 years ago. Wanting to start a family away from Los Angeles, they eventually landed in Santa Barbara, where they launched the school — initially called Montessori Children’s Home — with three students at Trinity Episcopal downtown. After two years, their head count hit 25. “We had to expand because the program was so popular,” Jim Fitzpatrick remembered. After 20 years of growth at Trinity, they found a brief home on the Westside at Grace Church before moving to the Boys & Girls Club near Santa Barbara High School, where they operated until the move to El Rancho.
“It was a big move from downtown to Goleta,” he said. “We called it our ‘risk and promise campaign,’” because the school was born downtown but the new nine-acre campus out past Dos Pueblos High School was so appealing.
Over the decades, the Fitzpatricks’ son and two daughters all attended and later worked at the school. Their four grandsons were also enrolled.
“Frances and Jim did an incredible thing,” Moreno said. “They started a business and ran it for 41 years in Santa Barbara, providing jobs for people and an incredible education for children. That’s their legacy.”