By Joe Schwartz and Lisa Sorg
This story was updated at 4:51 p.m.
The owner of a five-star Chapel Hill preschool allegedly owes teachers and parents thousands of dollars in pay and tuition after abruptly closing the facility March 18—and police suspect she has left the state.
Lisa McEntyre, owner of the Children’s University, closed the school after a series of investigations by the N.C. Employment Security Commission and the state Division of Child Development. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has also issued a criminal summons for her arrest on worthless check charges.
“This lady has dodged everything,” said Orange County Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass, adding deputies are monitoring McEntyre’s home.
According to Orange County court documents, McEntyre, who has a history of financial and credit problems, had not paid teachers since at least early February—even though parents continued to pay tuition, some several months in advance.
The school at 1702 Legion Road enrolled about 70 children ranging from 1 to 5 years old.
Sharon Phillips, a teacher at Children’s University for more than two years, is owed $5,553, according to court documents. The last check she received was on Feb. 5; a previous check for more than $1,000 had bounced.
“It was nerve-wracking on payday,” said Phillips, who earned $16 an hour. “You thought that maybe there was no money in the [McEntryre’s] account.”
Phillips said that some teachers received checks written on BB&T bank accounts; others, on Bank of America accounts.
Six teachers have filed suit in small claims court; however, they told the Indy all the teachers were shorted pay, many of whom could not afford to sue. In addition, several Latino immigrants worked as staff members at the preschool. They reportedly were not paid.
At the end of February, several teachers said that McEntyre told them a meeting that she would pay them half the money she owed them, and the balance on March 1. However, that money was never paid.
“We were all standing around and waiting for paychecks,” said Sadie Dula, who is owed nearly $3,000. “She always paid us in a white envelope. She gave the envelopes to a co-worker and said ‘Pass this out, I’m leaving for a doctor’s appointment.’ I saw the paperwork but there was no paycheck. No one had paychecks and she was gone.”
On March 18, teachers and parents arrived at the school to find a letter posted on the door stating the facility had closed. According to state records, the letter also said “If parents did not retrieve all of their children’s property that day, they should contact the owner and she would mail the property to the family.”
However, McEntyre’s voicemail does not accept messages; the school is padlocked and no one answers the phone there. Several teachers said they have not seen McEntyre for at least a month.
Dula told the Indy that McEntyre did not warn the staff she planned to close the school. “She just told everybody to get off the premises that day,” she said. “She said the money was not coming in so she couldn’t pay us, but it was my understanding money was coming in.”
Tuition ranged from $900 to $1,200 per month, per child.
Yassine Ouchchy, a Morrocan immigrant, had paid for his 3-year-old son to attend Children’s University through June. His son had been attending Children’s University for two years. He learned of the school’s closure on March 16. “She just closed it out of nowhere. She just disappeared. My son’s stuff is still inside the day care, his clothes, his blanket, his toys.”
Ouchchy said McEntyre owes him $2,700.
State Division of Child Development inspectors had visited Children’s University at least seven times since the beginning of the year and had cited the facility for several violations. On March 8, the violations included insufficient linens for the children, an unlatched gate leading to the playground and the presence of broken toys inside and outdoors.
Yet most of the violations, some of which were chronic, focused on inadequate staffing.
Under state law, the maximum class size for children ages 2-5 is 18. That age group also requires one teacher for every nine students. However, on March 8, there were 30 children in one group with just two teachers—or a ratio of one teacher to 15 students.
In another classroom, there were 21 children ages 1 to 2, nearly twice the legal number of students in a group. There were also only two teachers to supervise the children, also a violation.
Karen Meade, who is owed $2,883, said that the school was “out of ratio” in every room. In addition, Meade said there were instances in which there was not enough food for the children. “We got two large pizzas for class, but no fruit or vegetables. We ran out of milk.”
The state investigated a similar allegation in February, but could not substantiate it.
One of the restrictions on the Children’s University permit is that Nicholas McEntyre, Lisa McEntyre’s son, is not allowed on the premises during business hours. McEntyre has several drug convictions, according to court records.
However, teacher Sharon Phillips told the Indy she saw Nicholas McEntyre at the school during that time delivering what appeared to be checks.
Meade confirmed Phillips’ account, adding that McEntyre demanded that teachers and staff not disclose they had seen Nicholas. “She said to say Nick wasn’t here,” Meade said. “We lied for her because we needed our job.”
The Employment Security Commission visited the facility last November, according to a Chapel Hill police report. Ming Tran of the ESC reported a misdemeanor employment security violation to police, but the arrest report does not elaborate on the allegation. arrestreport_employviolation.pdf
By the Indy’s request, an ESC spokesman is checking into the report.
Furthermore, Meade alleged that McEntyre told employees to file for unemployment—and that she would validate the claim—but to “have us volunteer at the school and then she would make it up to us in April.”
Several other teachers corroborated Meade’s account.
Despite these problems, the Children’s University had been classified as a five-star facility—the highest rating—in mid-January. A spokesperson for the Division of Child Development said that state regulators examine the previous 18 months of compliance history when rating a facility. Although state records show the compliance rate started to go downhill a year ago, the Children’s University received its five stars in January because it had averaged a 94 percent compliance history since July 2008. compliance_history.pdf
Before McEntyre’s financial problems at the Children’s University, she had been sued in small claims court for other debts. In 2008, Louise Beck Properties sued McEntyre over $4,700 in unpaid rent and other charges at 208 Howell St. in Chapel Hill, according to court documents.
In 2007, Bank of America sued McEntyre for upward of $3,000. bankofamerica.pdf
And in 2006, McEntyre operated another business, Second Home Early Education, in a commercial space at 202 Greensboro St. in Carrboro, racking up more than $20,000 in unpaid rent. According to court documents, in October 2004, McEntyre and her husband, Corey McEntyre, signed a five-year lease on the building owned by Ontjes Properties; monthly rent was $4,521. However, documents state that just two months after signing the lease, the McEntyres “failed to make any timely rent payments.” They stopped paying rent in October 2005, four years before the lease expired. secondhome.pdf
A spokesperson for the N.C. Child Care Development said that McEntyre was licensed to operate Second Home from December 2004 through May 2006, when it was terminated. McEntyre’s license was originally classified as inactive because she had been evicted from the building. McEntryre received a new license in July 2007 when she purchased Children’s University.
The spokesperson said the state conducts criminal background checks on prospective day care and preschool owners and staff, but does not examine their credit history or civil court cases.
Check back for more developments on this story. The Indy will post the court documents after personal information, such as Social Security numbers, has been redacted.