Travis staff sues school and director
Ten former employees of the embattled Milwaukee voucher school Ceria M. Travis Academy have filed a lawsuit alleging the school and its director, Dorothy Travis-Moore, owe them more than $45,000 in back pay.
The workers, most of them teachers, filed the lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court last week. They say the school, which is in the midst of an ongoing battle with the state Department of Public Instruction over funding, refused to pay them for work they performed in May 2015 and May and June 2016.
Milwaukee attorney Richard Saks, who is representing the plaintiffs, said the total amount owed to Travis employees is probably closer to $100,000, but not everyone decided to sue. And he criticized Moore for working to reopen the school in the fall while she is was delinquent in her payments to past workers.
“She employed herself and relatives in pretty highly compensated executive capacities with the school. They’ve made a lot of money in that school in terms of their own compensation,” Saks said.
“We think it’s extremely unfair and unjust that teachers, assistant teachers and security personnel would go unpaid for two months,” he said.
Efforts to reach Moore through an attorney and the school were not successful.
The nonprofit Ceria M. Travis Academy Inc., which operates a kindergarten through 12th grade school at 4744 N. 39th St., is one of the longest-running schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows low- and middle-income students to attend private schools on taxpayer-funded vouchers. It has earned more than $35 million in state payments since 1996 and last year enrolled about 307 students.
Academically, the school underperformed both Milwaukee Public Schools and the state in the 2014 assessments, the latest available, with 1% of students proficient or higher in language arts, none in math, 11% in science and 15% in social studies.
As president, Travis-Moore earned $138,935 for the fiscal year ending in 2014, down from $213,000 the previous year, according to its nonprofit IRS filings. Her daughter, Vice President Wilnekia Brinson, earned $108,529, down from $118,000. Nonprofits are required to list only those employees earning more than $100,000.
Brinson said in a 2014 interview that the school employs five family members, including her husband, Robert Brinson, who worked in student support and security. She declined to disclose other family members’ job titles and salaries at that time.
Ceria M. Travis Academy and its now-defunct sister school, Travis Technology High School, have been in a long-running battle with the Department of Public Instruction over state funding and compliance procedures.
Travis Technology High School closed in 2014 after the state barred it from participating in the voucher program because it failed to obtain a special bond.
DPI withheld more than $600,000 from Ceria Travis School this year, saying it owes the state $2.9 million in overpayments. Travis-Moore and the school sued the department and Superintendent Tony Evers in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee in May in an effort to recoup those funds. Her attorney said at the time that the state’s actions could jeopardize the school’s ability to reopen in the fall.
The lawsuit alleges Evers also illegally withheld more than $388,000 in voucher payments in an earlier dispute, despite two court orders mandating he release the funds. And, it says, Evers demanded more than $2.9 million, the school’s total payments for the 2014-’15 school year.
Travis Academy had come under heightened scrutiny in 2014 after current and former staff raised concerns about its operation. Staff complained about nepotism and the payment of six-figure administrative salaries while classroom resources were inadequate.
Complaints filed with the state in 2014 and obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel through an open records request also alleged the school violated state law by employing people without bachelor’s degrees to teach students.
School officials countered that a then-recent review of the schools by an independent accrediting organization found the programs to be operating in accordance with state law.
That review was requested by the Department of Public Instruction as it sought to follow up on the claims about unqualified teachers at the school.