Picturesque San Marcos venue leaves couples at the altar

Private school with ties to Scientology owes thousands to landlord

San Diego Union-Tribune/July 21, 2011

San Marcos - The Old Richland Schoolhouse, a popular setting for weddings and other special events in San Marcos, will close at the end of the month, leaving couples scrambling to reschedule their nuptials and recover thousands of dollars in payments.

A nonprofit corporation has run a private school and event business on the schoolhouse property for nine years. The nonprofit owes about $50,000 in back rent plus additional rent for the lease's remaining year, said Eric de Jong, whose family owns the Old Richland Schoolhouse.

Lauren Basse of Mira Mesa, whose wedding was scheduled for Aug. 27, received an email the night of July 13 informing her that the schoolhouse no longer would be able to host the wedding nor refund any of the $2,500 that Basse and her fiance had paid for the rental.

"I was a little bit shocked," said Basse, who has a copy of the contract she signed in December and copies of cashed checks. "I think I was a little bit more upset that they weren't giving us our money back."

The email cited the inability to negotiate an agreement with the schoolhouse's landlord and informed Basse that her wedding information had been shared with an event planner from a party rental company.

Another bride-to-be, Maria Navarro of Encinitas, said she and her fiance were at the schoolhouse July 13 taking engagement photos. She learned of the closure the next day when an event planner at another venue called her fiance to offer her services.

Navarro said she paid a $1,000 deposit in cash but never received a copy of a contract she signed. She was able to stop payment on a $1,750 check to Old Richland Schoolhouse. She has sought legal advice about pursuing a case in small claims court.

The white, New England-style Richland School was built in 1889. San Marcos businessman Aries de Jong bought the schoolhouse and surrounding property in 1984 and opened it as an event venue in 1997. It sits on 4.4 parklike acres on Woodland Parkway just north of state Route 78.

The tenant on the schoolhouse lease is listed as Ability Academy, Inc., which operates Old Richland Schoolhouse Events and Applied Scholastics Academy San Marcos, which also will close July 31.

Applied Scholastics International is a nonprofit formed in 1972 "to provide effective education services, training and materials" using methods known as Study Technology developed by author L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology.

Applied Scholastics said it paid $9,680.72 a month in rent, with an increase scheduled for Aug. 1. The kindergarten-through-sixth-grade private school was supported by tuition payments, and the event business was used to help cover the rent and maintenance, Applied Scholastics said.

Responses to questions emailed to Kim Holland, the director of the San Marcos academy, were sent by fax from Applied Scholastics International in St. Louis. The fax from the St. Louis office stated that "the economic slump" affected enrollment and event bookings over the past three or four years.

Refunds to event clients are unlikely because "all the money available was utilized to keep the (school) doors open and properly maintained" to complete the school year, the fax stated.

Eric de Jong said he has been working with the school on its late payments and short payments for 12 months.

"They just pretty much said, we can't do this anymore," he said.

De Jong said the school's decision to cease operations was sudden and that he didn't know about the email sent to event clients until he received a call from the father of a bride-to-be.

"We tried to negotiate with them on their future rent because they were obligated for one more year, but (also) owed past rent," de Jong said. "They never came in with an offer of whatever would be reasonable."

Applied Scholastics, in its fax, said it offered to turn over the event business to the de Jongs and pay any fees from remaining events directly to them. Eric de Jong, who said negotiations took place with the school's founder, Chris Gerson, confirmed that such a proposal was discussed, but "we're not in the event business."

Gerson did not return a call requesting an interview.

Applied Scholastics said in the fax that it has no other schools in San Diego County. Past tax records indicate a school operated under the Ability Academy umbrella as Applied Scholastics Academy San Diego, formerly the Delphi Academy. The San Diego and San Marcos academy websites tout the Old Richland Schoolhouse as an "affiliate" for hosting events.

Basse's wedding now will be at a Sheraton hotel in San Diego. She said she and her fiance had picked the schoolhouse for its vintage setting and affordability, because they could bring their own decorations and alcohol.

"We were just trying to do a wedding without going into debt," she said.

Basse said wine and decorations they bought cannot be used at the hotel. She took time off work to find a venue available on the same date and new hotel arrangements for out-of-town guests. She also sent out new invitations.

Basse said that despite the situation, she has tried to maintain a positive outlook.

"Regardless of what's happening, we're still getting married."

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