Anonymous letter raises eyebrows, lawsuit at Currey Ingram

Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 8:15pm
By Steve Cavendish and Ken Whitehouse

No one knows — or is telling — who sent the anonymous letter that touched off the current troubles at Currey Ingram Academy. But its repercussions are sending shock waves through one of the city’s most expensive and well-regarded private schools.

The letter, sent in December to Currey Ingram parents, outlined a series of grievances. A group of unnamed parents was not happy with the management of the school, the head of school’s compensation, or her son — a school employee then on leave after being charged with aggravated statutory rape.

“Kathy Rayburn’s role as head of school is the single most important question that needs to be addressed,” it read. Why was her compensation package approaching a half-million dollars in the last tax disclosure? the letter asked. Why had she hired her son E.B.? What was the reason behind the departure of the middle school head in the fall?

The reaction from the school’s board — a collection of influential lawyers, bankers and professionals — was swift and unequivocal in its defense of Rayburn.

“We have conducted a very intensive and comprehensive internal review of these allegations,” the board response said, “and the results clearly show that the assertions contained in the anonymous letter are false.”

The matter might have ended there, quietly, with the Jan. 11 point-by-point rebuttal of the anonymous letter. But the resignation weeks later of middle school teacher James Warbel brought the fight into public view. The school sued him for breach of contract and defamation. And it has used the discovery process in the case to subpoena parents and others — in an attempt to find out who wrote the letter.

 

 

To understand the controversy engulfing Currey Ingram Academy, it helps to understand the school’s background and mission.

Now located on an expansive, tree-lined campus in Brentwood, it was founded in 1968 as the Westminster School of Nashville, and even then the emphasis was on personalized learning. Throughout its history, it has worked to embrace students as individuals and has one of the lowest teacher-to-student ratios in the area.

“We employ highly trained staff members and give them four times the state required professional development training each year,” Rayburn said in a recent interview. “We even offer our teachers and staff a free master’s degree, if desired, from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, thanks to a generous donor.”

That attention engenders the often-fierce loyalty of parents from a 12-county area who have found the public school system or other private schools wanting when their child doesn’t thrive. While not specifically founded as a school for learning disabilities, Currey Ingram’s individualized approach attracts a number of students with disorders — dyslexia, for example, or autism — that make learning difficult. The school describes its curriculum as designed for “superior to average learners.”

The school’s success, as well as what Rayburn touts as a 100 percent college acceptance rate, has drawn national notice. Even parents critical of the school, who did not want to be named by The City Paper for fear of litigation, acknowledge Currey Ingram’s good work.

Some of those same parents, however, were dismayed when E.B. Rayburn was arrested on rape charges in February 2011 after allegedly having sex with a 16-year-old boy (not a Currey Ingram student) at his apartment on Hillsboro Road. He pleaded guilty to one count of attempted aggravated statutory rape in February 2012 and was sentenced to two years of probation and 10 years on the state’s sex offender registry.

According to school records, E.B. began working at the school on a part-time basis a decade earlier, doing mostly manual chores. By the time he was charged, he had moved into a clerical role inside the school as an archivist making a little more than $35,000.

In response to inquiries from The City Paper about E.B. Rayburn’s employment and any internal investigation about him at the school, Currey Ingram board chairman Miller Hogan said nothing inappropriate was found.

“From the day we learned about Mr. Rayburn’s arrest, he has been off-campus and has since resigned,” Hogan said. “To my knowledge, we have never — and still have never — received a complaint about Mr. Rayburn here at Currey Ingram.”

E.B., 40, now lives in Kathy Rayburn’s home five minutes from campus in the gated Laurelbrooke subdivision. His presence there complicates his mother’s life a bit. As a registered sex offender, he is forbidden to be in contact with children. However, Kathy Rayburn receives an after-tax $40,000 annual housing stipend because she uses her home for Currey Ingram functions. She has said that E.B. is not there during any school-related event.

 

 

The now-notorious letter also took Rayburn’s compensation to task. Since 2003, Rayburn’s base salary has risen from $226,000 to $310,000. She also received a number of other perks — including the housing allowance that is “grossed up” to cover taxes, a car allowance and life insurance — and a one-time retirement payment for the 2009-2010 school year that pushed her total compensation to approximately $454,000.

That figure is currently the subject of an inquiry by the state attorney general’s public interest division, which looks at potential financial irregularities at nonprofit institutions.

In an April 4 letter to the AG’s office, Hogan argued that Rayburn’s compensation was in line with other exclusive Nashville private schools like Ensworth and MBA, and necessary to keep Rayburn from being poached by a school similar to Currey Ingram Academy in mission.

“The Board has been, and remains, determined to employ as a Head of School someone capable of growing CIA into the premier school of its kind in the country. This requires paying CIA’s Head of School in a manner that both is commensurate with the responsibility imposed on our Head of School and that will prevent the loss of a successful Head of School to another school willing and able to pay a higher salary,” he wrote.

Rayburn has been instrumental in the school’s growth over the past 17 years. Since arriving at Westminster in 1995, she and her staff have raised substantial funds, securing gifts from the Currey and Ingram families, among others, that enabled the purchase of more than 80 acres in Brentwood, the construction of new buildings and the expansion of the school to K-12.

In response to a question about Currey Ingram’s high annual tuition, Hogan placed the roughly $37,000 figure for high-schoolers — substantially higher than any other area school — in the context of other national schools that specialize in teaching “students with learning differences.” Currey Ingram’s figure is similar to or lower than six comparable schools including the Eagle Hill School and Forman School, both in Connecticut, whose tuitions are more than $50,000 per year. Rayburn’s compensation relative to those comparables, however, is higher than most, sometimes substantially.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the case.

 

 

In January, Kathy Rayburn held meetings with Currey Ingram parents to address concerns raised by the letter. In addition to the compensation issue and questions about her son, Rayburn had to talk about the abrupt departure of the former middle school head, Tammy Gibbs, during the previous fall term. 

Gibbs’ departure was one of the contributing factors to Warbel’s resignation. He had been close to her, according to multiple sources. In February he quit with no notice, handing in his resignation to Gibbs’ successor Mary Ragsdale — a longtime friend of Kathy Rayburn.

After resigning, Warbel contacted Currey Ingram families by phone and email — exactly how many he contacted and the tone of that communication is in dispute — in apparent violation of his teaching contract with the school. It reads: “The Teacher agrees that following the termination of employment with Currey Ingram, Teacher will refrain from continued contact with Currey Ingram students unless and to the extent that such contact is related to a formal teacher-student relationship associated with the subsequent employment by the Teacher.”

That clause gave the school an opening to sue Warbel, and in the process try to ferret out who wrote the “defamatory” letter. Believing Warbel “participated in the preparation of the anonymous letter” or if he was not directly involved in writing it, “received the letter and re-published it to others,” the school has subpoenaed a number of parents and former staff in an effort to identify the author. Among those summoned is Juli Liske, the executive director of the Brown Center for Autism in Nashville. Liske’s group has referred a dozen kids to Currey Ingram over the years, but her support for Warbel drew the school’s attention and a subpoena.

Warbel’s attorney Mark Freeman was straightforward in characterizing the motive of the suit against his client.

“It is because they want to find out who wrote the letter,” Freeman said.

The school claims the letter has not only hurt their reputation, but also cost them a $2 million donation.

Rayburn is apparently unconcerned that the suit and the media attention from it continue to give life to a letter school officials dispute and would like to go away.

“We feel that truth is unequivocally on our side,” she said. “The discovery in this case will support this belief.”

In the meantime, the litigation continues, with more depositions scheduled. No trial date has been set for the suit.

6 Comments on this post:

By: shinestx on 4/16/12 at 8:28

Wow! I thought Curry Ingram was a very expensive school for special-needs children... no?!?

By: Sickofit1 on 4/16/12 at 9:18

@shinestx...Fyi...my op is that the school in question IS for Special needs kids BUT and it's a big BUT IMO... In Nashville, there is a group of peeps who will NEVER refer to their Child as a child with "special needs". Instead they will dance around what they consider to be a label with a stigma attached. Just my op of course:)

Regarding the situation at the school in question; I really feel for all of those involved. I had thought and hoped and prayed that the private school arena, at least the most elite and well known, would have made more progress during the last 10 years or so when situations such as this came up. So sad for all involved. To put a child in danger in ANY way and yes that includes emotionally, is horrible IMO. When adults cease to BEHAVE like adults, what hope do we have for our children's future? We can spin our wheels until h--freezes over, but as parents, we will be totally defenseless unless all are on the same page. In this I mean that as parents, teachers and administrators, we are all equally responsible for our children's well being and ultimately the way that they lead their lives as adults.

I will not comment on the allegations due to lack of information and the fact that I feel I would be contributing to the continued gossip and defamatory statements that are kept alive due to these very comments. Please, if you care about your child or pupil...STOP commenting and let this go! If you feel that your child is danger, remove he or she from the situation whatever that may be, and MOVE ON!!

A final note to those who are relatively new to the Nashville area, it's a wonderful city full of so many opportunities, style and just plain old fun. However; IMO if you are attempting to change the very fabric on which the city was founded and the families who STILL have great influence both politically and religiously, you are wasting your time. As I said above, this group will never change. Your best bet is to move or stay quiet for the sake of your child or perhaps someone else's child. My thoughts and prayers go out to all involved in this horrible situation.

By: momof3 on 4/16/12 at 1:58

The AG's office and if necessary the IRS will sort out the facts regarding the finances and any possible cover up of EB's affairs on campus. Hopefully, they will interview actual students who were on the school bus with the 36 year old now convicted sexual pedator instead of taking the BOT's in house "investigator's" word for what they say happened or did not happen. Hopefully, anyone in a position to know about EB's actions will be able to freely testify without legal threats. Perhaps the armed guard on campus will finally be let go as they realize this is a silly use of resources and that no one is going to try and harm KR.

They will look at the figures that CIA used and see if they are comparable for THIS AREA, not Connecticut! CT has the 4th highest cost of living and TN has the 49th according to 4th Q 2011 figures. They will look at the BOT's composition and actions to see if they are truly acting independently and in the best interest of CIA as they are directed to do. .

CIA has great teachers and it is why we have stayed. However, in talking with other parents of kids who have been part of that 100% acceptance to college, CIA is definitely not adequately preparing the kids for college success nor do they care to find out. The class sizes are great, but not realistic at the college level. They do not push the children enough to toughen them up for what's ahead. It' s a shame when they are sending recent alumni requests for donations they can't include a survey with feedback on their experience and their needs post-CIA. Many parents are pulling kids out when they get the results of outside testing that reveals that CIA is not making the advancements that they claim. As we get closer to high school years, we will definitely be looking around at other options.

I don't blame the letter writers for trying to open eyes if all of their other efforts had gone in vain. They're not trying to take down CIA, just prune away what's keeping it from truly flourishing.

By: EasyDoesIt on 4/17/12 at 1:16

Congratulations to the City Paper on a good and balanced article about an issue that has become very emotional for many. Currey Ingram is an excellent school with wonderful, committed teachers serving a group of kids who have benefited greatly from the help they could not get elsewhere.

There is just one statement in the article that is misleading and that is the one that refers to "meetings with parents" that were supposedly held by the administration in January. It gives the impression that the administration responded with some openness after the anonymous letter was received by many in the school. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Their communications have been guarded and selective, avoiding direct answers to many of the questions that had been raised. There has been no offer for a general meeting with parents to date, even though it has been encouraged and asked for, and holding one in January might very well have put much of the brewing controversy to rest.

If this truly is a mole hill that's been made into mountain, as the board and administration claim, the board's own actions have contributed greatly to that process in the selectivity of their answers and the aggression in their tactics. The merits of the criticisms leveled at the administration have yet to be decided. However, while the administration pursues lawsuits and serves subpoenas to parents in a search for the writers of an anonymous letter, many of the rest of us onlookers begin to understand just why the writers felt compelled to submit their criticism anonymously.

By: dargent7 on 4/18/12 at 5:30

This "100% college acceptance" is nonsense.
Any H.S. grad can be accepted to any college.
As long as your GPA is 2.0 and your SAT's are 900.
Vanderbilt? Maybe not. But surely MTSU.

By: localboy on 4/19/12 at 8:01

According to MTSU's website, guarranteed admission requires among other items,
•a minimum 2.7 GPA and minimum ACT of 19 (SAT of 900)
There is a conditional admission process, but no GPA was noted.