Financial troubles plagued former Leo Academy

LIMA — Leo Academy billed itself as a place for young students to learn financial literacy.

But the school was in debt, behind on rent and forced to close in December in what became a failed experiment to continue the legacy of what was once Golden Bridge Academy, a non-public chartered school that served a predominantly low-income and minority student population in preschool through eighth grade.

Leo Academy’s financial troubles were the result of missed deadlines and a sloppy admissions process in which students whose EdChoice vouchers were not fully approved by the Ohio Department of Education were admitted anyway, even though the non-public school was supported by vouchers rather than private tuition, according to Warren Pughsley, the most recent board president for Leo Academy.

Those decisions cost Leo Academy nearly $200,000 last school year and at least $63,000 this year, Pughsley said.

“How long are you going to keep losing money, and how long do you think you can stay afloat thinking that ODE is going to rescue you when you should have already had this money?” Pughsley said.

A vision unfulfilled

The non-public chartered school was originally founded as Golden Bridge Academy by Karen and Larry Beard in 1997.

The school, which was not affiliated with any religious institution, ranked among the top private schools in Ohio for enrolling a high percentage of students of color, with an acceptance rate of 97%, according to Private School Review.

The school promoted hands-on learning, limited screen time and emotional intelligence, Beard told The Lima News in 2019. Former Lima schools teacher Kendra Gottschalk took over as interim principal one year after she was hired to teach at Golden Bridge when Beard left the school in 2020.

Soon after, Gottschalk founded the non-profit Lima Educational Opportunities (LEO), moved the school into the Cornerstone Building in Town Square and rebranded the school as Leo Academy.

Gottschalk described the school as a place where real-world problems are met with a real-world curriculum, with an emphasis on budgeting, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

“The most important thing you own is a credit score,” Gottschalk told The Lima News when the school rebranded in 2021.

Gottschalk did not respond to emails from The Lima News for this story, and she was not present at the school when The Lima News learned of the school’s closing.

Leo Academy was private and therefore did not have to publicize academic performance data and other metrics used by Ohio’s school report card system to measure the quality of instruction at public and community schools, so it is unclear how well Leo was preparing students for high school.

Still, former Leo Academy teachers described Gottschalk as a passionate educator who often worked past midnight and used her own paychecks to buy students breakfast or supplies.

Before she joined Golden Bridge, Gottschalk would talk about her dream of opening another school for kids who didn’t do well in public schools, one former Leo Academy teacher who worked with Gottschalk at Lima schools said.

But Gottschalk was not on campus when students and parents were notified that the school would close on Dec. 17.

Financial troubles

Leo Academy had been relying on outside money to cover payroll, including donations and a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan from Feb. 2020, Pughsley said.

The school stopped paying rent in July, although its landlord said he did not evict the school and did not try to collect rent during that time. On at least two occasions, Pughsley said board members and others associated with the school borrowed $25,000 to ensure the school made payroll after he joined the board in September.

Leo Academy missed deadlines for early childhood education grants and federal nutrition funds used to cover the cost of providing students free breakfast and lunch, Pughsley said.

And the school reportedly continued enrolling students whose EdChoice scholarships were still pending or denied by ODE. Pughsley estimated that just under half of Leo students had been approved for EdChoice scholarships when the school closed in December, even though Leo was supposed to be “100% EdChoice,” he said.

When the board tried to discuss its financial situation with Gottschalk, Pughsley said, she wanted to talk about “passion and mission” instead. “You can’t get to passion and mission if you can’t pay the bills,” Pughsley said.

Still, Leo Academy operated without a full board for months, and former staff members say Gottschalk asked for help with administrative tasks so the school could operate properly.

The seemingly abrupt decision to close the school months after new members were appointed to the board raised suspicions among some former staff members that the board was trying to start another school without Gottschalk. Pughsley disputes those rumors: “If the numbers made sense,” he said, “we just would have gotten another principal” and made Gottschalk lead teacher.

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Leo Academy billed itself as a place for young students to learn financial literacy. The school closed Dec. 17. Academy billed itself as a place for young students to learn financial literacy. The school closed Dec. 17. Craig Orosz – The Lima News

By Mackenzi Klemann

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Are you a former teacher or parent of a Leo Academy student? The Lima News wants to hear from you. Contact reporter Mackenzi Klemann at [email protected] or call 567-242-0456.