Whether 74 Columbus middle-schoolers will go to Chicago this week isn't 100 percent certain -- even though they paid for the educational trip months ago.
Cleveland-area Discovery Tours collected more than $51,000 in payments since December from the families of Ridgeview Middle School students, before company officials disappeared without a word last week. The tour company filed for bankruptcy May 7.
Prime Tours, based in Dublin, has agreed to handle the Ridgeview trip at a discounted rate. At a special meeting May 11, the Columbus Board of Education voted to approve it.
According to the district, outside groups have donated more than $12,500 so far to help the Ridgeview kids get to Chicago. The donors include the Columbus Firefighters Union, the OAPSE/AFSME union representing the district's classified staff and the Education First Credit Union.
"Our school district is comprised of a lot of low-income families," said Lolita Augenstein, president of the Columbus Council of PTAs. "Some parents may have been saving and planning for this for years."
Not much of the money parents paid Discovery Tours made it to the hotels and attractions the students were expecting to visit, according to the district. That's the same story throughout the state.
Ridgeview, 4241 Rudy Road in northwest Columbus, is one of at least 30 Ohio schools listed as priority creditors in the bankruptcy filing. In a nearly 2,000-page document filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Cleveland, Discovery Tours reported that it owes $2.7 million to about 5,630 Ohioans who paid trip deposits within the past year.
Other local districts on the hook include Olentangy and Hilliard schools.
Olentangy Orange Middle School students will leave on their Washington D.C. trip May 15, but only because of scrambling on the part of school officials and donations. Worthington's Prodigy Student Travel made arrangements and a donation, as did the teachers at Orange and the Orange High School Class of 2018.
An attorney representing Hilliard schools has been trying to get refunds for middle-school students who already paid a deposit on a Washington trip in October. The first payment of $325 was due by April 10, according to the contract Hilliard schools signed in January.
When school officials went to the Discovery Tours offices in Mayfield Village in Cuyahoga County, in early May, no one was working there. Calls and emails to the office by a Dispatch reporter were not returned.
As of May 10, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office had received about 680 consumer complaints from affected families, said spokeswoman Kate Hanson, and prosecutors in Summit and Geauga counties, where several of the affected school districts are located, are investigating.
Sen. Sherrod Brown wrote letters to the Federal Trade Commission and to Justin Herdman, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio on May 10, requesting they investigate whether federal laws have been violated.
Olentangy and Hilliard schools received a brief email May 4 from Discovery Tours owner and president Alfred Cipolletti: "We regret to inform you that Discovery Tours Inc. has suspended its operations, effective immediately. All future trips are canceled. Further information will be provided when available."
In its bankruptcy filing, the company reports about $1.4 million in assets, but $3.9 million in unpaid liabilities to customers and creditors. It reported about $13,000 in available cash.