Carp’s Venta Preparatory School files for bankruptcy

Photo: JEAN LEVAC / OTTWP

 

A Carp-area prep school that closed abruptly in December has filed for bankruptcy.

Shocked and bewildered Venta Preparatory School parents got an email message from principal Marilyn Mansfield early on Dec. 9, indicating that the school was closing, effective immediately.

Venta had about 83 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 10 at the time, with day students paying $20,500 a year in tuition.

The bankruptcy filing, dated April 11, indicates Venta has about $1.57 million in liabilities and assets of just over $800,000. A first meeting of creditors has been scheduled for May 2.

The decision to close came months after the death of the school’s founder, child psychologist Agatha Sidlauskas, known to generations of students as “Doc.” She bought the 20-hectare property in 1958 and ran a summer camp on the grounds, later opening the prep school in 1981 as a retirement project with the aim of tailoring education for bright but under-performing students.

Sidlauskas died last August at the age of 103, about four months after she had a stroke, and had been active in the school until her final months. After her death, Mansfield said Sidlauskas never accepted a salary and often covered the payroll herself.

Dr. Agatha Sidlauskas shares a laugh with Venta students in November 2013.
Dr. Agatha Sidlauskas shares a laugh with Venta students in November 2013. JULIE OLIVER / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Mansfield declined to comment on the bankruptcy.

“The whole process of closing the school and declaring bankruptcy has been extremely painful for all concerned,” she wrote in an email.

“Our former students have all been placed by their parents in other schools and they seem to have settled in well. Some of our former teachers have managed to find employment elsewhere. Others are still looking. There is little else that I can say.”

Some parents say they’re still in the dark about why the school closed.

“They really left a lot of people hanging,” said David Smith, whose son is nine years old. “They really hurt a lot of people. If they knew at the start of the year that they couldn’t do it, they shouldn’t have started the year.”

His wife, Veronica Toth, said they chose the school because of its small classes sizes — there were 10 students in their son’s class — and its outdoor education program.

“The message we got, over and over again, was ‘Trust us with your child’s education.’ Then, two weeks later, they come out of left field and said they’re closing down,” she said. “They ran off a cliff and left us there in the cold.”

The students didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to to their teachers and friends, she said. “It was a very special school. We were devastated when it happened.”

Peter Hauderowicz, whose 11-year-old daughter was a student at Venta, said the school should have been charging more for the individual attention and extras such as meals.

“It was like buying a car. Some schools give you the base model and add on. Venta just gave you the deluxe model. There may have been sticker shock, but nobody else does that much.”

He said his understanding is that the Venta property will be put on the market for sale. Parents are unsecured creditors in the bankruptcy. This means if they paid their tuition in full, they likely won’t be able to recover the unused portion of their fees.

However, Hauderowicz added that several groups are trying to build a deal to satisfy the creditors and reopen the school under Sidlauskas’s education philosophy — although it is likely too late to do so next September. “There’s still hope it could reopen in 2019.”

The school’s former dean of students, Sean Hooper, will be running 5 Star Camps on the Venta grounds this summer, as he has for the past 12 years. Last year, the day camps attracted about 700 campers, he said.

“I knew Doc when I was 11 years old. She changed my life. We want to continue that ethos with 5 Star Camps.”

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