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Short-lived military academy leaves complaints in its wake

Feb. 24, 2009

New Berlin - A Union Grove resident who operated a military school from September 2008 to January 2009 in New Berlin has left a wake of irritated parties in the community and elsewhere who claim the man owes them thousands of dollars and refuses to pay them back.

Lisa Colasanto of Fayetteville, N.C., sent her son to attend the now defunct Wisconsin Air Academy in January and said that Jeff Starke, the school's founder, refuses to send her the $8,500 she paid for tuition, room and board until May.

Tom O'Loughlin, the general manager at New Berlin's Holiday Inn Express, said Tuesday that Starke has an outstanding hotel bill of almost $3,000 from this fall, when he was housing Academy students at the hotel. O'Loughlin sent bills to Starke's Union Grove address as well as to the building where the program was housed, New Berlin's old Prospect Hill Elementary School at 5530 S. Racine Ave.

"I sent him an e-mail last night explaining his bill and that I was going to have to send it to legal," O'Loughlin said. "I got a response back from him today. It's so short I can quote it: 'The Wisconsin Air Academy is closed. Sorry.' "

Starke's intent, according to earlier interviews, was to launch a private, residential military academy in New Berlin for middle and high school students. He secured a six-month lease agreement starting Dec. 1 with the New Berlin School District.

When the school closed in January, Kathleen Dugas, a mother of two children at the school, said the building needed expensive improvements - including a sprinkler system and updates to the kitchen - to pass fire code that Starke couldn't afford.

Without passing fire code, the building could not get an additional, more stringent city permit it needed for a residential program, said Amy Bennett, associate planner in New Berlin.

"He never did get approval to have children overnight in that building," Bennett said. "He told us he was housing the students at the Holiday Inn Express."

Holiday Inn records from O'Loughlin show that students stayed at the hotel from Sept. 18 to Oct. 5.

Colasanto, the North Carolina parent, confirmed that her son was indeed living at the school from the beginning of January to a week or so before the school closed, when he was being shuttled to live at different instructors' houses, including Starke's.

 

Colasanto said that Starke told her in January that she'd have her money within a week. Without it, Colasanto added, she can't afford to send her son to a different private school in North Carolina, where the public schools are not up to par, she said.

In an e-mail sent Monday, Starke told the Journal Sentinel that he was only operating a day school, and that the cadets lived at the hotel or with other parents. Starke said New Berlin treated his program unfairly. He didn't offer any comment about his outstanding hotel bill.

"I finally got the gist of what New Berlin politics has to offer and WAA, quite frankly elects not to play," he wrote in an e-mail.

Starke also said that Colasanto has been impatient.

Regarding the $6,000 per month plus utilities lease agreement that Starke entered with the New Berlin School District, Superintendent Paul Kreutzer said that he and the district's lawyer were supposed to have a meeting with Starke on Tuesday afternoon.

Starke failed to show up, Kreutzer said, and the meeting was canceled.

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