Tammy Montabon had high hopes of getting off welfare and finding a job to support herself and her son when she enrolled at Barnes Business College in January 1994. Those hopes faltered when the school declared bankruptcy in August 1995, five weeks into the eleven-week semester. But Montabon picked herself up and transferred her credits to another business school.
Life appeared to be back on track until April, when she learned that she and other former Barnes students were being sued by a collection agency representing the Barnes bankruptcy trustee, attorney Jeffrey Weinman. The collection agency wants the students to pay for the five weeks of classes they received, even though the abbreviated classwork is essentially worthless to their pursuit of degrees and jobs.
Weinman tells Westword he'd have to research "the facts of the case," but he concedes that "it wouldn't be right" to charge students for courses that were not completed through no fault of their own.
Acknowledging that the collection agency, Associated Recovery Systems Inc. of Littleton, represents him, Weinman adds, "I would want to know if someone is issuing lawsuits in my name when it is not proper to do so."
To Montabon, 23, it's $1,508.18 plus $97.42 in interest that she doesn't have. It's money that would have been covered by her student loans, which, after Barnes folded like a cheap deck of cards, were no longer available.
Montabon and two-year-old Kyle live on food stamps and $250 a month in Aid to Families With Dependent Children. "Everything I have goes to pay utilities, rent and the phone," she says. "There's nothing left over."
She thought that would change as soon as she could complete coursework at Barnes for an associate's degree in business administration and get a job. She had thousands of dollars in student loans to pay back but only two semesters to go when she signed up for Barnes's summer session in June 1995. Her classes were English composition, psychology, speech, computerized math applications and--she laughs bitterly when she says this--business ethics.
On Thursday, August 3, 1995, Montabon went to school as usual. She even took a girlfriend to class for "Bring a Friend to Barnes Day." She made arrangements with a teacher to discuss a project for the following Friday, then went home.
Nothing seemed amiss. In fact, at about 4 p.m., a representative of Barnes called her friend to schedule an appointment with a school counselor.
At 10 p.m., Montabon sat down to watch the news. She couldn't believe it when the newscaster announced that the 91-year-old school had declared bankruptcy at 4:50 that afternoon and was closing its doors.
"I was in shock," she recalls. "This is what I was doing so that I could take care of my son. I had to call Channel 4, and they said that it was true."
Montabon says she burst into tears, believing that "all my dreams were being flushed down the toilet." She wasn't alone. Students were telephoning one another with the news. "I had about 25 calls," she says. "I made 10 to 15 more myself. No one wanted to believe it."
The students agreed to meet in front of the school the next morning. When they arrived at 8 a.m., there was a notice on the door but no one to talk to. "We stood in the parking lot, watching the teachers moving their stuff out," she says. "We wanted somebody, anybody, to give us an answer.
"Finally, at noon, somebody from Denver Business College arrived and said there would be a meeting at their school for us."
Montabon attended the meeting and was relieved to discover that the school would accept credits for coursework she had completed at Barnes. But it wasn't all good news: Her transportation and child-care logistics would become more complex because, although she lived only two blocks from Barnes, she was miles away from Denver Business College, and DBC courses tended to be spread out during the day rather than compacted like the ones at Barnes. However, because her financial aid for the summer hadn't arrived yet, nothing had been paid to Barnes; she was out only five weeks of her time.
Or so she thought.
Then, on April 11, 1996, she received a "demand letter" from Associated Recovery Systems. The letter told her to pay $1,612.96 or face the consequences. It noted that the charges had something to do with Barnes Business College, but it didn't say what.
Montabon thought the charges were a mistake. She wrote a letter to Associated Recovery Systems saying she wouldn't pay until she knew why she was being charged. She received a call from Bill Andrus, the general manager of the collection agency, telling her that $19.69 was the balance from a previous semester and the rest was her prorated tuition for the aborted semester.
"I said, 'That's crazy. Why should I pay for something I didn't get?'" Montabon recalls. Students had received no grades or credit for the five weeks. "He basically said, 'You got five weeks of education in your head.'"
Montabon says Andrus was rude and demanding. Her attorney, Nancy P. Johnson, who says she also represents some other former Barnes students in similar situations, declines to allow her client to discuss more particulars of the conversation. "It may become the basis for some of our defenses at trial," Johnson notes.
Montabon thought Andrus's language was inappropriate enough that she told him she would no longer talk to him on the telephone and that any future contact would have to be in writing. She sent a check for the $19.69 she owed from the earlier semester.
Andrus responded by sending her a summons in May, suing her for $1,605.60. Montabon hired Johnson, who has already filed a similar lawsuit claiming that a student was fraudulently induced to enter the summer semester to get tuition monies when school officials must have been aware of the impending bankruptcy.
Asked about Montabon's situation, Andrus says, "I can't discuss a client's account. It's confidential. I suspect you're going to have to contact the trustee."
Trustee Weinman tells Westword that "there was no partial semester when the school was closed. It was the end of the semester." Barnes's literature stated, however, that the semester was scheduled to run from June 26 through September 14.
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But no matter: Five weeks or five minutes short of completion, with no grade or credit the summer semester was worthless.
It is difficult to say exactly how many students are in Montabon's predicament, and Andrus, whose company gets a percentage of the amount collected, isn't talking. Some former students may not even know they paid for the five weeks because the amount was already deducted and charged to their student loans.
Last Friday Johnson filed a counterclaim on behalf of Montabon asking for attorney's fees and damages for what is essentially a breach of contract by the school.
"It promises in the catalogue that Barnes students will have a lifetime of free refresher courses and assistance with job placement," Johnson says. "These are promises that will not be fulfilled.