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St. Clair County BOE sues travel company, claiming it failed to return $100,000 for trip canceled due to pandemic

Parents across the state wait nearly a year for refund they say was promised by Musical Destinations’ owner, Jody Cooper
Updated: Feb. 25, 2021 at 5:13 PM CST
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SPRINGVILLE, Ala (WBRC) - UPDATE: Shelby County Schools has decided to refund the total amount Chelsea Middle and Chelsea High School parents paid for the 2020 band trip to Orlando which was canceled because of the pandemic.

School leaders also said they would never use Musical Destinations as a vendor again.

This is the letter send to parents on Wednesday, February 24:

This is a statement from the Shelby County Schools system:

Band parents from Chelsea Middle and Chelsea High schools will receive refunds from the Shelby County School District for a band trip to Orlando that was canceled last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The school district is contacting parents by mail to offer the refunds after making several unsuccessful attempts to get the money refunded by Musical Destinations, the travel company which the band program used to arrange the trip.

“After repeated unsuccessful attempts, the executive leadership team has decided to refund all parents what they have paid Musical Destinations for the Orlando band trip,” said Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Chief Financial Officer John Gwin in a letter to parents.

Gwin said the district waited to make the refunds to parents because it was pursuing all available options before making the refund from the district’s General Fund. He added that the school district will continue to seek reimbursement from Musical Destinations to replace the money being used from the General Fund for the parent refunds.

ORIGINAL: Joe Frost’s son, James, played the trumpet in the Chelsea High School Band.

“All the way through senior year,” said Frost. “He was really into it,” he added with a smile.

James graduated last year and one of his final performances with the Chelsea High School Marching Hornet Band was supposed to be at Universal Studios in Orlando.

The trip was scheduled for March but canceled when the theme park closed because of the pandemic.

“He was very much looking forward to the trip,” said Frost.

Chelsea High School hired Musical Destinations, a travel company based in Winter Garden, Florida, to handle the logistics of the trip. It took care of arranging transportation, hotel accommodations, theme park admission, events and meals, according to Frost.

Frost paid just more than $800 and nearly a year later, he’s still waiting for his refund.

“Where’s my money?,” said Frost.

Frost started asking for his refund last summer after James graduated. He got an email from Superintendent Lewis Brooks that said in part, “We are working through our legal representation to get to a resolution.”

A WBRC FOX6 viewer shared a letter Chelsea Middle and Chelsea High School band parents received in September that said, “I am sorry to say the Shelby County Board of Education has not received any further communications from Musical Destinations since September,” and that “We are continuing our pursuit of your funds on a daily basis.”

Jeremy McFall, band director for Dora High School, said Musical Destinations and its owner, Joseph “Jody” Cooper, stopped responding to him in September, too.

“The patience really ran out for me when our parents started getting very unsettled and very frustrated and we had several band parent meetings that this issue was being addressed to the point that several parents were wondering if I had done something wrong,” said McFall. “Which I had not.”

Dora High School, like the schools in Shelby County, hired Musical Destinations to handle its travel arrangements for a trip to perform at Universal Studios last March.

The five-day trip cost $43,000, said McFall, and shortly after it was canceled, Cooper returned a $21,000 uncashed check.

“I had all the confidence in the world at the time that things were going to work out and things were going to be fine,” said McFall.

McFall said Cooper promised to refund the remaining $22,000 after he got reimbursed from vendors.

In May, he sent an email to McFall that said, “I got some Universal refunds today on my credit cards. It will still take another couple of weeks to get a check back from AMEX.”

A spokesperson with Universal Studios told WBRC FOX6 News its policy was to quickly refund any student group impacted by the pandemic.

She continued, “We are reviewing all our business with Musical Destinations and in all cases find that we either never received payment or long ago returned anything we did receive. In an effort to help the schools, we have tried to contact officials from Musical Destinations several times without success. Their actions do not represent the values we expect from those we do business with and we are no longer working with this company.”

“There are a lot of question marks in my mind, as well as the parents of Dora High School, the folks who were going to go on this trip, in the biggest question is if the money isn’t being returned, where is the money at? Where did the money go?,” said McFall.

The attorney for the Walker County Board of Education said several attempts to reach Cooper or anyone from Musical Destinations have been unsuccessful for months, and the next step will be to file a lawsuit.

The St. Clair County Board of Education and Springville Band Boosters filed a complaint last week, asking a judge to order Cooper and his company to refund money paid for its trip that never happened.

The Springville High School band was set to perform at Walt Disney World in March 2020 and the Springville Band Boosters hired and paid Musical Destinations $105,865 to handle the transportation, hotel accommodations, and tickets to Disney, according to the court filing.

After the trip was canceled, Cooper agreed to refund the total payment for the trip, and according to the court filing, put the promise in writing.

John Rea, the attorney representing St. Clair County Board of Education and the Springville Band Boosters, told WBRC Cooper stopped responding to emails and calls in August 2020.

Homewood City Schools hired Musical Destinations to coordinate Homewood High School’s band trips in 2020, said a district spokesperson. The spokesperson said students paid Musical Destinations directly through its online payment portal and have been able to get partial reimbursement but Homewood High School has not received its deposits made for a trip to perform at the Tournament of Roses Parade.

The spokesperson said HCS it is no longer using Musical Destinations for any travel arrangements.

In Jefferson County, parents from Gardendale and Shades Valley High Schools reached out to WBRC and said they too are waiting for refunds from Musical Destinations.

A spokesperson for Jefferson County Schools confirmed the district hired the travel company but could not provide additional information because “this matter is still on-going.”

A school district in Georgia reached out to its sheriff after the Columbia County School District’s Superintendent told WBRC FOX6 News Musical Destinations ignored their requests for a refund. Harlem Middle School’s band paid the company $34,427 to organize its trip to perform at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Students paid $569 each, according to Superintendent Dr. Sandra Carraway and after Musical Destinations and Cooper stopped all communication in early summer 2020, she called the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. The CCSO contacted Winter Garden Police to help make contact with Cooper, said a spokesperson with WGPD.

Frost, and several other parents who have reached out to WBRC said they would like to see Shelby County Schools take action against Cooper and Musical Destinations, like other districts.

“There are a lot of parents, over 100, that’s out money just in the Chelsea area,” said Frost.

He added, “Where’s my $800? I don’t have a kid in school anymore.”

A spokesperson for Shelby County Schools said she could not provide details on the case because its an on-going legal matter and added, “The Shelby County School District is currently working with our board attorneys to find a resolution to a situation involving Musical Destinations and refunds that have been requested by parents for trips that were canceled last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

WBRC FOX6 News has tried to call and email Cooper, but has not gotten a reply at the time this story was published.

If you worked with Musical Destinations and are waiting for a refund, please contact Morgan Hightower at mhightower@wbrc.com.

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