SANTA ANA – A half-dozen parents and donors have filed a lawsuit accusing the Speech and Language Development Center in Buena Park of not upholding its mission and are asking a judge to turn stewardship of the nonprofit campus over to a recently-ousted, longtime leader.
Their attorney accuses the center’s current board of directors, as well as a recently-hired CEO, of gutting the school’s administration by firing a principal and three vice principals.
In the complaint filed last month in Orange County Superior Court, attorney Matthew DeArmey described the personnel changes as part of an attempt by the school’s board to “hijack” the campus and advocate for a “bottom-line business-oriented approach focusing on dollars and cents, not on human potential.”
The school’s attorney, William Browning, described the allegations as “absurd” in a response filed with the court. The board of directors’ recent actions, Browning wrote, do not threaten the services provided to students, and are part of an effort to get the center’s “fiscal house in order.”
Founded out of a Long Beach home in 1955, the Buena Park campus is home to around 200 staff members and more than 200 students ages six months to 22 years old, according to legal filings. Students come from Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Most have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, according to the filings; many have multiple disabilities. The center contracts with local school districts to help students whose needs can’t be addressed as well as on public school campuses.
In recent years, the center was led by Dawn O’Connor, whose roots with the school date back to 1965, when she was mentored by the campus’ founders.
According to the lawsuit, O’Connor in November 2016 agreed to step down as CEO to make way for Adrienne Kessler. The board told O’Connor that she would have full authority over the administration of the educational and therapeutic programs, while Kessler would handle the business side, according to the lawsuit.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Kessler let go of the three vice principals and then in early June fired O’Connor.
DeArmey is asking a judge to appoint O’Connor as the “sole charitable trustee” of the Speech and Language Development Center, a posting that would give her the power currently held by the board of directors.
Cayce Blanchard, the current vice president of the center’s board of directors, said she understands why parents who have spent years fighting on behalf of their children would be concerned about any changes at the school. Reasons behind personnel decisions can’t be divulged, but she acknowledged the changes have been difficult for some parents.
“I think the emotions that occurred – it got carried away and I regret it immensely,” Blanchard said. “But I have every confidence that we will work through this.”
With an annual budget of $10 million-plus, the school says in legal filings that it has been forced to rely on fundraising and donors to help bridge the funding gap. Blanchard said that under Kessler, the school is trying “new avenues” to bring in more students.
“There is some concern about, ‘Is this going to take away from my kid’s therapy?’ and that is not at all what will happen,” Blanchard said. “We are expanding programs.”
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana.