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Students' trip in jeopardy

Company holding Hempstead's $30,000 payment for New York visit has ceased operations

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Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2013 12:00 am

A travel agency's closure has diverted one Hempstead High School trip to limbo.

The district was notified Monday from an attorney representing Integrity Travel that the travel agency used to arrange Hempstead's June trip to New York had ceased operations.

Integrity, based in Cedar Rapids, was paid approximately $30,000 for the trip in advance with fundraising dollars and family contributions. The trip cost was more than $850 per student.

"We've been told it's not hopeful (to recover the funds)," said Hempstead Principal Lee Kolker.

District attorneys are pursuing legal options to recover the money. Meanwhile, parents and students met Wednesday at Hempstead to discuss trip options.

Thirty-five students, five parents and three staff were registered for the June 5-9 trip meant to give students a real-world experience to strengthen their study of music. It included a Broadway show and New York Philharmonic concert, which would have allowed the students to analyze musical selections and understand music in relation to history and culture.

Kolker said the district believes Integrity made no purchases or downpayments for the Hempstead trip -- for example paying for buses or hotel reservations in the group's name. An exception is $4,000 worth of theater tickets that might be in a safe at Integrity.

"It's really disappointing," said Nichole Wollmuth, a ninth-grader.

Integrity couldn't be reached for comment, nor did its lawyer immediately respond to an email Wednesday. Integrity's website was not accessible.

The Consumer Protection Division of the Iowa Attorney General's Office launched an investigation into Integrity after a complaint was filed by another school in another district.

"We don't yet know what our investigation will determine, but it will be difficult for consumers to recover funds if this was simply a business failure or bankruptcy. If an investigation uncovers evidence of fraud, that's different," said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. He added it's difficult to know when the investigation will be completed.

Jeff Greteman, co-owner of Windstar Lines Inc. out of Dubuque, has offered a bus to the group at 70 percent off with a maximum contribution from Windstar of $7,500. Kolker said he also has had conversations with Andy Hillard, vice president at Tri-State Travel headquartered in Galena, Ill., to work with the group quickly on some travel options.

At the end of the meeting, it was decided that Kolker would work with Windstar and Tri-State Travel to determine possible costs associated with a trip and try to recoup the theater tickets. The costs would be e-mailed to parents, who would then decide whether or not to go forward with the trip.

Wendy Farni-Arredondo said she doesn't have funds to pay more money for her daughter, Marissa Farni, a senior.

"The reality is, we're not going," she said, adding she doesn't blame the school.

Mike Cyze, director of community and school relations with the district, said based on records for the past five years, this was the first time Integrity was used in a district school. A Hempstead staff member had successfully used Integrity at a previous district.

Hempstead isn't the only school impacted by the travel agency's sudden closure.

Davenport Central High School and Center Point-Urbana High School also prepaid for trips.

More than $160,000 was paid in advance to Integrity by Davenport Central for a trip to New York for 180 students, staff and parents. It had used Integrity for about 16 years.

An official with the Davenport Community School District said when people learned about the closure, they were shocked and disappointed. However, with the help of the vocal music booster club, students at the school were able to take their New York trip that started Tuesday.

Center Point-Urbana paid Integrity about $10,000 for a Minnesota trip.

Officials with Davenport Central are the only ones who filed a complaint against the travel agency with the Consumer Protection Division of the Iowa Attorney General's office.

Cyze said district officials in Dubuque have not yet discussed whether to file a complaint.

Although travel agencies are required by Iowa law to post a $10,000 surety bond, it can be hard for consumers to recover lost funds when there is an issue.

"Consumers are best protected when they use credit cards. If there's a problem, a consumer can dispute the charge(s) with the credit card company and limit their loss(es). If they paid by cash, check or debit card, it may be tougher to recover lost funds," Greenwood said.

In Dubuque, there are no other school trips booked through Integrity.

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