The former director of a private Santa Monica high school is alleged to have misused more than $1 million in school funds, forcing the school into bankruptcy near the beginning of the term and blindsiding many families who had paid a full year’s tuition, according to documents and interviews.
Many of the allegations are part of a civil lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court by Concord International High School against former administrator Susan Packer Davis, her husband, Eric Hille, and her son, Alexander Davis.
The suit accuses Packer Davis of putting her husband and son on the school payroll although it was uncertain what services they provided or the value of those services and of using school funds to pay personal expenses and to pay her son’s rent in Westwood. It also alleges a breach of fiduciary duty, particularly with regard to her own compensation — described as “grossly inflated.”
“Ms. Packer Davis ran the school without any oversight and treated it like it was her personal bank account,” said Howard S. Levine, an attorney with Cypress LLP, which filed the suit on behalf of the nonprofit school.
Packer Davis, a former member of the Santa Monica Rent Control Board who had been the director of Concord High School since the late 1990s, resigned in November and school officials say she has had no contact with the school since. Neither she nor Hille returned telephone calls and emails seeking comment. Alexander Davis could not be reached.
The school filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November, soon after Packer Davis left. Parents and staff then began looking into the school’s affairs, which had been administered by Packer Davis with few support staff.
In public tax records, required to be filed by nonprofit corporations, Packer Davis and Hille were listed as the only members of the school’s board of directors. According to the records, she paid herself a salary of $308,000 in 2009, and the school’s revenue for that year totaled about $1.5 million.
The tax records also show that over the course of three years, Packer Davis declared expenditures of more than $700,000 for “conferences, conventions and meetings.” Teachers and parents have said they knew of no such events and can find no documents supporting the charges.
The Times obtained copies of canceled Concord High checks signed by Packer Davis for parts of 2009 and 2010 amounting to more than $22,000 to the Palazzo Westwood Village, a luxury apartment complex, and $9,000 to the W Hotel.
According to the civil suit, Packer Davis charged more than $380,000 to the school’s credit card; it is unclear how much of that was for school-related expenses. The suit said she also paid her husband $45,000 and her son $53,000 in 2009-10.
The landlord of the building the school had been renting on Wilshire Boulevard sued for nonpayment of several months’ worth of back rent and is listed in bankruptcy documents with a claim for $115,000.
Under Packer Davis, the school relied solely on tuition for its revenue and did little fundraising, said Richard Corlin, chairman of the board of the now-defunct Concord. In addition, Corlin said, the majority of students were receiving scholarships, a worthy goal but one that could not sustain the school financially.
“The last thing they [the school] wanted was parents involved and asking questions,” said Corlin, whose son is a senior now doing home study. “And we didn’t ask questions because we didn’t want to put our kids at risk.”
Some parents contributed from their own pockets to continue instruction through the fall semester and have now formed a new school, with all of Concord’s teachers, at the Santa Monica Boys & Girls Club. Graduating seniors will receive diplomas and credit for college-level Advanced Placement courses. And parents have set up a nonprofit foundation to support the new school.
Lillian Wallace, whose son and daughter attended Concord and are enrolled at the new school, said Packer Davis was committed to the students and to getting them into good colleges. Wallace said she and her husband paid more than $60,000 in tuition and additional thousands to keep the school open last semester.
“I feel so bad for the teachers because they are trying to hold this together and fundraise and somehow graduate seniors,” she said. “I want the school to survive with my heart and soul — it’s an exceptional school, but there’s only so much we can do financially.”
Andrew Taylor, who joined the Concord faculty as an English teacher more than 10 years ago and is academic director for the new school, said he suspected something was amiss when enrollment declined this year. But staff members were in no position to question the boss, he said.
Founded in 1973 by the late Sonya Packer, a UCLA educator and Packer Davis’ mother, Concord High forged a reputation as “a haven for the serious student” boasting of graduates admitted to such universities as Princeton, Stanford and Dartmouth.
Small class sizes of five to 10 students enhanced its academic focus, and the school was known for taking in students struggling with learning disabilities, drug abuse and other challenges.
The Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges — which evaluates academics, safety and other campus issues — recommended that the new venture, Concord Prep, retain its accreditation at least through the summer.
“It’s certainly an unusual situation,” said David Brown, executive director of the group’s Accrediting Commission for Schools. “They’ve done incredible work to sustain the school, and a lot of dedicated teachers have figured out how to keep things running. Whether that extends next year is a question mark.”
Teachers are trying to maintain a normal routine for students, said Max Duganne, who graduated from Concord in 2001, returned as a teacher and is now the new school’s director of operations. “The most important thing for the kids now is to feel normal, to feel like they’re in a school.”
Students said they were disappointed by the turn of events but hopeful about the future.
“We put our trust and our futures into her [Packer Davis’] hands, and for someone willing to do something like that, is like a cold slap of reality that people are not nice all the time,” said Miwa Sakamoto, 17, a junior. “The most perfect reality would be if Concord can survive long enough for me to graduate and for others in the future.”