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.