February 14, 2019; Action News Jax
Administrators at Mainspring Academy, a Jacksonville, Florida nonprofit school for students with “exceptional and special needs,” surprised parents and teachers with a brief letter and email on February 7th announcing the school’s closure at the end of the 2018–2019 academic year.
The announcement gave no reasons for closure and the impersonal delivery of the news has angered some parents. With less than three months till the end of school, the parents of Mainspring’s 69 students are under pressure to locate alternative schools, while teachers and other staff scramble to find new positions.
There are few clues to understanding the board’s decision. In January, Mainspring Academy received a $10,000 donation from the Florida Blue Foundation for engaging more than 15,000 participants in a social media campaign. Parent reviews on social media are exemplary, as are profiles on various school assessment sites. Mainspring Academy’s 2017 Form 990 does not show any significant financial distress. Charity Navigator notes, “This organization receives much of its funding from paid services or government grants.” An income stream of this nature tends to be less volatile than one that is more dependent on individual giving or corporate partnerships. Board members have not returned inquiries from local news media, and no statements, formal or otherwise, explaining the closure have appeared on social media or the school’s website. The board member list, staff list, and staff bios are no longer on the Mainspring Academy website. At this time, there no information available to explain the board’s abrupt decision to close the school.
Mainspring Academy leases its educational space from Keystone Behavioral Pediatrics. Keystone’s website states that it opened Keystone Academy in 2010 and the academy became a separate nonprofit school, Mainspring Academy, in 2015. In an interview with News4Jax, Dr. Max Harovitz of Keystone notes that Mainspring and Keystone had a formal relationship at one time, but it has been over for several years. Keystone operates the for-profit Mosaic Day School located adjacent to Mainspring Academy and currently serving children through age 8. According to the 2019–2020 Parent Handbook, Mosaic Day School intends to educate children through eighth grade. The current website, however, indicates that Mosaic provides education through high school. Harovitz indicated in his News4Jax interview that Mosaic Day School expanded its curriculum on learning of Mainspring’s decision to close.
The “silent treatment” public relations tactic is quite common in the for-profit sphere especially for mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies. In the nonprofit sphere, the silent treatment is undesirable. Silence allows critics and speculators to fill in the gaps for themselves. If at all possible, organizations need to maintain control of their narrative. Much as many people see “pleading the Fifth” as an admission of guilt, they see silence as an attempt to hide or obscure a truth. Nonprofits are the recipients of public moral and financial support and held to a much higher standard of operation and communication than for-profit entities. Rather than simplifying a transition, the silent treatment complicates the situation possibly damaging public trust in nonprofits and other organizations with similar missions. A kinder, gentler approach to delivering this difficult news might have saved Mainspring Academy a tremendous public uproar, protected its legacy from being tarnished, and would have comforted the families now facing a significant life change.—Skip Lockwood