Over the past few weeks the Finger Lakes School of Massage (FLSM) Ithaca campus has seen drastic changes following what some students and former staff are saying is a complete change in the culture of the school. Current students say that their programs are not being fully staffed because a number of the school’s teachers have left or were allegedly fired just before the start of the new program year.
In mid-August of this year, Jeannie O’Neill was promoted from director of education of the Ithaca and Mount Kisco campuses of the FLSM to the national director of academics for all the FLSM campuses in New York, Arizona, and Maryland. While reviewing the school’s admission numbers once promoted, O’Neill said she saw large discrepancies between the number of students actually enrolled at each campus, and the number of students that the company was claiming were enrolled at each campus for budgeting purposes. Several weeks later O’Neill started asking questions about the numbers and was fired. She was told it was because of insubordination, she had left early the day before. O’Neill’s firing was just one of several changes the school has seen over the last several years that have affected the culture of the school.
“The school that began in Ithaca 24 years ago is not the school that is present there today,” O’Neill said.
Over the last three to five years O’Neill said she has seen the culture gradually change from one of teaching to one of making money. Under the direction of a new consultant, she said the school started accepting everyone who applied and admissions staff were hounded to get more applications. Recently, in April of this year, a majority share of the school was bought by the investment firm Kuzari Group from Trumantra Group, a holding company founded by FLSM CEO David Merwin.
“There’s also this current of blatant misogyny and gender bias and discrimination,” she said, referring to frequent jokes made about women being overly emotional by men she worked with, and drastic pay differences between men and women doing the same job at the school.
After O’Neill was fired, she said several other administration staff members walked out with her, and several teachers threatened to do the same unless she was reinstated, along with other demands. O’Neill said several of those teachers who signed their names to the demands were fired, a few have returned to finish out the time they signed onto but no more. Some questioned whether O’Neill would have been fired if she were a man. Soon after O’Neill was fired, she said the Director of Student and Career services, Jessica English, was also fired. The only administrator left was campus director AJ Sare, who had started just a few weeks earlier. When contacted for comment, FLSM told Tompkins Weekly that neither Merwin nor Sare would be available for comment but did send a release acknowledging the recent changes.
“Over the past two weeks, our community went through a drastic change as we had to dismiss a key member of our management team for actions that completely warranted the dismissal,” according to the release. “We want to respect the privacy around this decision, however the dismissal led to the voluntary departure of some additional staff members.”
FLSM media contacts declined to answer any specific questions, referring again to the release.
The release, along with comments on the FLSM Facebook page from the account by someone claiming to be Merwin, assured students that their education and experience were the top priority and that the situation was being handled. Current student Ciara Ames said she doesn’t feel that is true. While tuition used to cover the textbooks each student needed for class, Ames said that recently FLSM decided to change this policy and provide class copies of certain books, not individual ones. But, there are classes still without books. This change happened, she said, as tuition was raised.
“I’m a little peeved about that, personally, and I know a couple other students are as well because we’re paying you more money but you took some of our books from us,” Ames said.
Ames said the last straw for her was the firing of the Director of Student and Career Services. She, along with several other students, started sit-in protests on the Commons to raise awareness of the ongoing changes. She said she has tried to speak with Sare about concerns regarding the changes three times. One of these concerns was about preparing students for their certification test by rescheduling a necessary CPR class that students had missed during the upheaval of a transition week. Ames approached him about rescheduling the class, a requirement for certification.
“Personally, I feel like he didn’t realize that that was a requirement, something we had to have,” Ames said. “I had to explain to him that we need this to take the test before he was even willing to deal with it.”
The FLSM students are required to hold what are called clinics to give them hands-on training, but the clinics are required to be observed by a supervisor. With the understaffing, Ames is concerned that students won’t be able to meet their required clinic hours to take their certification test. When addressing the students after the sudden loss of staff, Ames said Sare told students to do clinics by themselves.
O’Neill said that FLSM has a pattern of this behavior of cleaning house rapidly, it happened last year at the sister campus in Arizona. Going forward she wants to be able to say she did something to help and document the transgressions. She and several other former FLSM staff members are working with the Tompkins County Workers Center to figure out what their options are. The Worker’s Center is “Aware of labor issues, in particular, numerous allegations of sex discrimination or a hostile work environment for women by Finger Lakes Massage School parent company,” said Robert Brown, the operations manager at the Tompkins County Worker’s Center.
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