By John Mullen
Trustees on the board of the Marietta Johnson Organic School Education Fund, was which started to help fund one of the oldest private schools in Baldwin County, are at odds over funding from the trust.
On one side is Director Jessie Patterson, who says the school is in danger of closing because the trustees stopped funding in April. Patterson runs the school and is also one of the trustees.
“Brian Dasinger is insisting that I have been stealing money,” Patterson said. “That was in April. Immediately after that I took all the records over to the Fairhope Police Department and asked them to look through it and verify there wasn’t any missing money. He submitted it to the DA, Judge Wilters. … They have the records, the trustees have the records. There’s not missing money. I didn’t steal anything. But he is still insistent on this.”
Dasinger, also a trust board member, said the documents Patterson turned over were his personal Quickbooks documents on the school finances. The other trustees are seeking bank records and Dasinger says they have been subpoenaed.
Dasinger, who is a candidate for Baldwin County District Judge, and his wife, Amanda, and fellow trustee Harold Lanier all voted to stop the funding until an accounting can be made for the funds Patterson has received in the past, specifically a disbursement of $155,000 in April 2016.
“After viewing the account, we soon discovered that a transfer of $155,000 had been made in April 2016,” he said. “This was the first that any of us had heard about this transfer.”
A recent lawsuit by former trustee Earl Black resulted in the mediation and an audit to find out where the $155,000 went was part of that agreement.
“We had a mediation with the plaintiffs in the Black vs. Marietta Johnson Organic School case on Oct. 11 and came to what we thought was an agreement,” Dasinger said. “Part of the terms of that agreement was that there would be a ‘forensics audit’ of the school going back to 2011 and that after the said audit was completed, we would determine a percentage of the trust account’s principal to be distributed to the school.”
Patterson said the Dasingers and Harold Lanier changed the terms of the mediation agreement by seeking the forensic audit.
“Brian and Amanda called a trustee meeting after the mediation agreement to change the terms,” Patterson said. “They want to separate the power to adjust percentage from the audit. And they want the audit to be a forensic audit. Harold Lanier also insists that all of the money for the settlement come from the income for the trust that would be going to the school and not from the trust itself.”
The Black lawsuit is just one of three filed recently over the school, including one filed by Dasinger after he said Patterson tried to have the school board oust him, Amanda, Laura Velky and Sam Reddy during an April 9 meeting.
“Members were illegally removed from the board,” Dasinger said. “For one, they did not have a quorum to conduct any business that night after we all left. Secondly, the school board of directors has no authority to remove a trustee. This issue was subsequently brought to the attention of the other party to the Black vs. Marietta Johnson Organic School lawsuit and they agreed that we would remain on the trust board and that no new ‘voting’ members could be appointed to the trust board while this matter is legally pending.”
Dasinger also said trust funding was never intended for the operation of the school as Patterson says.
“Trust documents do not allow for anything other than disbursements of up to 10 percent of the principal for ‘capital improvements,’” Dasinger said. “The trust and school were not set up whereby the school would be dependent on the trust to operate. The school should be self-sustaining and should be fine on its own merit, running off of tuition and fundraising.”
Patterson, Dasinger said, has claimed several times the school would have to close unless more funding was released by the trust.
“Since April, the Board of Trustees has withheld the regular monthly distributions of trust income on which the school relies to cover basic operating expenses, pay employee salaries and maintain the property and buildings,” Patterson wrote in a news release about the conflict.
Dasinger says the school is in no danger of closing.
“We have not blocked Jessie Patterson or the school board from remaining fully operational,” he said. “In fact, he was able to open the school this fall with the full knowledge that there would be no trust funds available until the excess distributions were recovered or the court in the [Black case] ordered otherwise.
“None of us want to see the school close down. Jessie Patterson has been making out like we want the school to close down and that could not be any further from the truth.”
The school was started in 1907 by Marietta Johnson. It has had several names over the years, but in the 1970s it was christened under its current name.
“In the 1970s it became a nonprofit and they set up the trust and they had to create a formal name,” Patterson said. “Their legal name is the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education.”
There are about 30 kids enrolled in the school.
“It’s basically promotes experiential hands-on, student-led learning,” Patterson said. “The goal is to create a lifelong learner, a critical thinker and hopefully with an artistic, creative side.”