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Judge orders pay for teachers, cuts lawyer's fee

A Superior Court judge ordered full back pay for former Hendersonville Christian School teachers who had filed claims and slashed a lawyer's fee by a third in a ruling that could close the books on a chapter of local education history.

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners bought the school classroom building and gym and 9.5-acre campus for $910,000 in January and has turned it into the county Athletics and Activity Center. After payment of bank mortgages and closing costs, the short sale left the school with $55,000 to disburse to unsecured creditors.
On Wednesday Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour ordered a receiver to pay the schoolteachers the full amount of their claim and reduced the fee for attorney James L. "Skip" Goldsmith from $51,000 to $37,653.
Goldsmith had filed a claim for $273,000, representing 30 percent of the purchase price in a contingency fee arrangement he said in court documents the School Board had authorized in June 2012.
Founded in 1961 as Faith Christian School, the academy had been having financial difficulties and was months behind on mortgage payments when it sputtered to a permanent halt after the 2011-12 school year.
"I'm happy for those four (teachers) but it's still a very sad chapter for the whole community," said Dr. S.E. "Chip" McChristian. "I was on the School Board for six or seven years and resigned in March of 2012 over decisions the headmaster was making and the fact that the board was supporting him. The decisions that were being made I just couldn't stand with."
McChristian said he wishes that Goldsmith or court-appointed receiver William Gardo had done more to identify all the former teachers so they could be paid. He estimated there were "16 to 18 to 20 teachers" who were not paid their final two months' salary. The teachers were on a schedule to receive their pay for 10 months over a 12-month period.
"I think the judge, (given that) he doesn't know any of the situation ... that was just really nice that he awarded those four full payment. I'm sorry that the other teachers did not get anything," McChristian said.
On July 15, Goldsmith told Judge Spainhour that all claimants should be paid the same percentage, which at the time had been calculated at 18.7 percent. The judge said he wasn't sure what the law was, and delayed his ruling. Two days later, he signed an order granting the teachers the full amount of their pay.
The four claimants "are former teachers at the school who taught children there and have not been the amounts claimed for their work as teachers," Spainhour wrote. "These teachers should be paid their unpaid salaries. The remaining should be paid on a pro rata basis."
The rest of the claimants ended up receiving 13.8 percent of their claim.
The judge's final order gave Gardo nothing for his work as receiver.
"The state Bar encourages attorneys to do pro bono work," he said last week before the case ended. "I felt like helping a Christian school unwind would be a worthy pro bono effort. I can't make a career out of it. It's turned out to be more time than I thought."

'Justice can prevail'
Laurel Moore was one of three former teachers who showed up in court on July 15 hoping to tell the judge that they had not been notified that they could file a claim. Judge Spainhour refused to allow McChristian, as a past school board member, to speak. Grace Currie, who was a claimant, told the judge that there were many teachers who had not made claims. Moore praised the judge's decision on behalf of teachers who had filed claims.
"I was very happy that he recognized it was important that the teachers be paid first out of any funds left," said Laurel Moore, a former teacher. "Mr. Goldsmith seemed to believe the judge had no choice and would not change his ruling. I do wish that all the has received a certified letter.
"I know Mrs. Currie sent a letter to the attorney general with a number of the teachers' names and the amount that was owed to them," she said. Moore said because Currie included her name, she thought she did not have to do anything more.
"It is my own fault for not pursuing it and filing a claim with the court system," she said. "And I think some of them might have thought this has gone on so long it's a lost cause. But I think this week proved that justice can prevail and right can triumph. I would not want to do anything to delay them receiving those payments. I consider it case closed."