Montessori school owner sues state She says agency stalls on license

September 13, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

The owner of a Montessori school in Columbia has filed suit against the state Department of Human Resources, charging that the agency is using "capricious regulatory interference" to prevent her from getting a new license.

Carmen Awilda Torres, owner of the Love of Learning Montessori School in Harper's Choice, is asking the Howard Circuit Court in a civil suit filed Sept. 7 to order the state to issue an operating license to the school.

She also is asking the court to award her $20,000 in damages against a department official for violating her right to earn a livelihood, the suit says.

Ms. Torres said she is waiting for the agency to complete inspections of the school so she can acquire a license to operate a child care center and a certificate from the state Department of Education to provide educational programs to students.

"We do not have anything against the Department of Human Resources," she said. "We just want to speed up the process and do what we have to do -- teach the children."

Ms. Torres is continuing with her programs, despite the state's ,, lack of action on her license application.

Ms. Torres is joined in the suit by three couples -- Maurice and Magdelena Cuffee of Columbia, Thomas and Marcella Blinka of Columbia, and Jack and Kay Stott of Severna Park -- who have children attending the school.

In addition to the Human Resources Department, Howard County and Frances Sterner, a regional manager with the department's Child Care Administration, are listed as defendants.

"[The defendants] intend to let the plaintiffs dangle and twist in the wind by withholding the license indefinitely, without either denying or granting it," the suit says.

Ms. Sterner, speaking through a secretary, referred comment to officials at the Human Resources Department. Helen Szablya, spokes woman for the agency, declined to comment.

Ms. Torres is supported by parents whose children attend her school. Fifty-three parents signed a letter to state officials, which was filed with the suit, asking them to issue Ms. Torres a new license.

"We view any delay in the process to obtain the permit, license and certificate as a threat to our children," the parents say in the letter.

Ms. Torres ran Montessori Day School in the 5900 block of Harper's Farm Road from 1983 to 1992, providing day-care programs and educational classes to children in kindergarten through sixth grade, the suit says. Last school year she had 65 students, aged from 2 to 10.

In August 1992, Ms. Torres learned her lease would expire and moved the school to the 10800 block of Little Patuxent Parkway, the suit says.

The school reopened in the new location under the name Love of Learning Montessori School, the suit says. Ms. Torres says she was unaware that she would lose her state operating license if she moved the facility or changed its name.

After the new facility opened, Ms. Sterner, manager of the state ChildCare Administration office in Ellicott City, ordered Ms. Torres to close the school and day-care center and denied her request for a new license, the suit says.

Ms. Torres contends in the suit Ms. Sterner did not inform her that she could get a provisional license until a regular license was granted.

The suit asserts the state has "vigorously" sought to have prosecutors press criminal charges against her for operating a day-care center without a license, despite the prosecution's decision to put the case on an inactive docket.

The state agency also has sought to get the state Department of Education to take away Ms. Torres' certificate of approval, even though she has the same staff and curriculum as at the old school, the suit says.

In addition, the state department has asked the county Department of Consumer Affairs to take punitive action against Ms. Torres, the suit says. Ms. Torres is asking the court to prevent the county from taking any action against her.

The suit singles out Ms. Sterner, charging that she has acted out of "improper personal animus" against Ms. Torres to get the school closed.

The suit asks the court to order Ms. Sterner to pay $20,000 in damages.

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