As Green Fields School prepares to close after 86 years, families, staff and alumni band together to find new schools and jobs.
Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes talks could lead to a potential acquisition by a charter school up the road.
Presley Indo was one of the students showing up last week at the private school at 6000 N. Camino de la Tierra to pick up transcripts just days after the closure was announced.
The 11th grader attended Green Fields from kindergarten to fifth grade, then returned last year for 10th grade. She and her mom are trying to find a new school, but Indo said she worries it’ll be hard to get into schools she likes because the open enrollment process has been open since the fall, meaning there are fewer slots available.
Her feeling about Green Fields echo those most students and parents who showed up at the school shared: Green Fields was more than a school, it was a community.
“This school, the whole school, wasn’t my home — it was the people that were here,” Indo said. She said her mom is especially sad the school is closing because she is a Green Fields alum.
“We are a family”
The school opened in 1933 on what was a 77-acre alfalfa farm. For generations, students have grown up and sent their own children to the school, according to parents and staff.
The private school is one of 61 private schools in Pima County, according to the county superintendent’s office. But that number is a mix of elementary, middle and high schools, with no breakdown immediately available since private schools don’t report to the county or state.
Tuition at Green Field costs between $9,600 and $15,600, depending on the student’s grade.
That said, between 50% to 60% of the students received scholarships to attend, according to Anthony Marshall, board of trustees president.
Helen Leslie’s granddaughter Danny, who is a senior, attended Green Fields on scholarship since enrolling in the ninth grade.
Leslie, a working, single grandmother raising two grandkids, wiped away tears as she talked about having to find a new school and losing the community they found at Green Fields.
Leslie said it’s especially hard to switch schools now because Danny is going into her last year of high school.
Danny is passionate about Green Fields’ art and theater programs, making the private school the best fit for her granddaughter, Leslie said.
“They embraced her like family,” she said. “She found a home here and acceptance.”
Leslie says they were usually able to secure at least $24,000 in annual scholarships for Danny. After the closure, Leslie had to put the scholarship payment on hold while they look for a new school.
Cristina Greenberg, mother of three Green Fields kids, says parents and alumni formed a Facebook group right away, where along with history and memories, they’ve been sharing information about school options for students and job options for teachers and staff.
“The entire Green Fields clan has just been wrapping ourselves around each other,” Greenberg said. “We are a family.”
Greenberg, who had already paid a $750 deposit for the upcoming school year, said she and the other families still don’t understand why the school had to close.
She says she wished they would have known sooner, so they would have had more time to find other schools.
She found a charter school for her two elementary-age children but is still looking for her middle schooler.
Her family is one of dozens who had already paid a deposit or tuition to the school, according to filings in the school’s bankruptcy case.
When the school filed for bankruptcy Monday, they owed hundreds or even thousands to individual families who had prepaid tuition and deposits for the 2019-2020 school year, with one family having paid $48,500 in tuition for their three children.
On the filing, the families are a secondary priority after a number of other expenses, which include over $1.57 million owed to secured creditors, over $8,500 to 15 employees and $182,000 in scholarships that need to be returned.
The school has requested permission to quickly refund about 26 families who prepaid this coming year’s tuition payments.
The court filings blame the growth of charter schools for steep enrollment declines from 2012 to 2016.
Struggling to maintain enrollment and rising costs just didn’t align with revenue, the documents say.
In 2001, Green Fields listed 246 students on their tax filing.
Marshall says enrollment numbers began to steeply decline in the 2010-2011 school year, until they reached a low of 105 students in 2015.
He says they didn’t notify families of the financial decline sooner because after 2016, the enrollment numbers began to increase and the school had received some helpful donations.
The board was optimistic, but in the end, last year’s enrollment numbers weren’t what they expected, he said.
“We didn’t see the increase we had planned our futures on,” he said. “We started evaluating our options, but we couldn’t make all the pieces fit.”
The school had seen financial losses every year since at least 2011 except for 2015, according to publicly available tax documents.
Tax filings in 2017 show the school, a nonprofit, had a revenue of about $1.75 million with a loss of about $676,000.
In 2018 filings, the revenue was up to about $2.26 million with a loss of $311,500.
The school is two months behind in its mortgage payments and also took out a second mortgage from a company created by former students and friends of the school.
With only $200 in their checking account, the greatest of their assets is the school itself.
Court documents say a conservative estimate of the property’s value is $3 million, but the Pima County Assessor’s Office lists it at a total full cash value of $4.56 million.
A future for the school possible
In a letter to parents announcing the school’s closure, Marshall said they exhausted every option to keep the school open.
But there may yet be an option in the works, one that at least a few parents support.
Accelerated Learning Laboratory, or ALL, a charter school about 4 miles away from Green Fields at 5245 N. Camino De Oeste, has been looking to scale up for some time, says Headmaster David Jones.
He proposed the two schools merge. Green Fields may stay a private school to diversify ALL’s portfolio, and they may change the name to Accelerated Learning Laboratory Green Fields, he said.
“We’ve got the cash to pay off their debts,” Jones said. “Everything I see makes this doable.”
ALL is a college preparatory school like Green Fields. Jones says the schools are compatible and he values Green Fields’ ambiance.
The two schools also have differences that make it desirable to ALL, he said. Green Fields has a sports field, a theater and art studios, which ALL doesn’t have.
Jones said Monday that the ideal scenario would be to proceed with a merger before the school closes. ALL contacted Green Field’s bankruptcy lawyer, and they sent a letter of intent to purchase on Friday, according to Serei Kay, a director with ALL.
Marshall said a merger with ALL wasn’t something they could jump into to avoid filing for bankruptcy.
“I’m not sure how well their culture and education would fit with Green Fields,” he said.
He said an investigation into whether a merger could work would take some time, and he didn’t want to start the school year without knowing for sure that the school would be able to stay open the whole year.
Green Fields mom Abbie Wallen is one of the parents who thinks a merger between the two schools is a great idea.
Wallen had a son enrolled in high school at Green Fields, who she moved to ALL as soon as the closure was announced. Her daughter was already a student at ALL.
“This is an amazing school; it’s a community,” she said about Green Fields. “Considering a merger would be the best of both worlds.”