Inside the Cutthroat Rivalry Between Two of L.A.’s Elite Preschools

Money. Gossip. Ambition. When the cofounders of Santa Monica’s Cassidy Preschool left to start a new school, things got ugly fast
350

Just after 10 a.m. on June 27, 2013, three men entered Cassidy Preschool in Santa Monica and headed toward the administrative office while two more waited on the sidewalk outside of the squat brown stucco-and-brick building. Cassidy, which enrolls 154 students, was nearing the end of its school year. Children from three to six years old filled the classrooms, their parents having dropped them off an hour earlier. Cassidy’s daily routine was well known to a member of the group walking the hallways, an attorney named Dennis Hawk, whose son had graduated from the school the previous year. Flanking Hawk was a process server carrying legal documents and an employee of the security firm Talon Executive Services, who had a gun in a concealed holster.

Inside the office sat Crystal and Jesse Biltz, the couple who founded the prestigious preschool in 2009. Crystal was the school’s director; Jesse, its business manager. The process server was there that day to deliver legal paperwork informing the Biltzes they’d been sued for fraud and for stealing business and trade secrets from the school. Hawk called the two tech specialists on the sidewalk to come in to copy the school’s hard drives and suggested the Biltzes contact their lawyer. The couple walked to the playground to make a call. Ten minutes later they returned to gather their belongings and relinquish their keys before being escorted out of Cassidy Preschool. “We’re Disneyland, and you just walked away with Minnie and Mickey” is how one staffer later described it.

Parents were unaware of the spat during the last two weeks of school. Then Crystal sent out an e-mail to all current and former Cassidy parents later that month, alerting them that a major change was afoot. “Four years ago Jesse and I decided to build a school,” she wrote, reminding parents that Cassidy had been named after the child they hoped to have one day. “Due to issues with our business partner, which I am not at liberty to discuss or disclose, Jesse and I will not be returning in the Fall.” Without saying they had already departed, she went on: “Although I have not been told who will be taking my place, I’ve asked all teachers to remain at Cassidy so you can return to familiar faces and transition into your classrooms as expected.” She closed the e-mail with declarations of love and gratitude, promising, “You, your family, our teachers, and Cassidy will remain our highest priority.”

Crystal’s e-mail came as a shock to many of the parents. The information about a business partner did, too. Most thought the school belonged solely to the Biltzes. In truth, the majority owners of Cassidy were a couple living in Florida, Michael Liberty and Brittany Abbass. Another thing the Biltzes didn’t mention in the e-mail was that they were starting a preschool just a mile away. It would be called Piper (another name they’d selected for a future child). When news of Piper surfaced—and it didn’t take long—the lines of division began to form. A contingent of parents who had initially supported Crystal became suspicious. “Once I started piecing stuff together,” says a mother, who, as with most parents I interviewed for this article, asked to remain anonymous, “I’m like, ‘You know, this is kind of gross.’ It made me really mad that clearly this was premeditated.”

There are, of course, personnel changes at schools all the time—changes that often rankle parents and staff. But what erupted on the Westside after the Biltzes’ departure was on the scale of what you might expect at a university or in a political campaign, not at a preschool. Lawyers queued up, with millions of dollars at stake. Rumors swirled about adults behaving badly. Chatter about the meltdown arose at dinner parties and during elementary school tours. Eventually the dispute was on display in the courtroom, offering a glimpse into the amped-up world of high-end romper rooms.


In Los Angeles, choosing a preschool, and being chosen, has come to feel like competitive sport,” reads the course description for “Coping with Preschool Panic,” which is taught at the Santa Monica branch of the Pump Station & Nurtury store. “Parents attack it with the same fervor and intensity as a military general mapping out his next battle plan.” Christina Simon, who runs beyondthebrochurela.com, a blog about private schools in L.A., frames matters this way: “It’s almost like someone carrying a superexpensive Hermès bag,” she says. “People in the know will realize it’s a $25,000 bag, and the people who don’t know—forget them. It’s that mentality.”

Although wealthy Angelenos have been using their wallets and connections to get their kids into private schools for ages in the hope of providing them with an educational advantage, the jostling didn’t used to begin until kindergarten. Maybe it’s partly because so many people have moved from New York, long a battleground for coveted preschool slots, or maybe it’s just because college admissions have become so competitive, but these days on the Westside and in other plush pockets around the city, preschools are considered a crucial launchpad to an illustrious private school career. Many of these parents believe that certain preschool directors wield serious influence with private elementary schools. They subscribe to the feeder-school theory. Another subscriber is psychologist Michelle Nitka, who offers parental counseling and teaches the Pump Station class based on her book Coping with Preschool Panic: The Los Angeles Guide to Private Schools. “If you have your heart set on a certain private elementary school, it will influence the preschool you go to. It narrows the field. You can’t be completely naïve to that,” Nikita tells me.


RELATEDL.A.’s After School Satan Club Is Coming for Your Children


Among the most desired
 private elementary and secondary schools for wealthy
 Westside parents are John Thomas Dye School, Harvard-Westlake School, Curtis School, Carlthorp School,
Brentwood School, and 
Crossroads School. If your
 hope for your progeny to join
 their ranks is strong enough, 
the campaign doesn’t begin
 with preschool. A pregnant Westwood woman was counseled by a friend to sign up for a parenting class called Babygroup—immediately—explaining, “If you don’t do Babygroup, you won’t get into the right preschool. You won’t get into John Thomas Dye, you won’t get into Harvard-Westlake, and you won’t get into Harvard.”

That generalized Darwinian fright has commingled over the years with more parents asking school directors to take their kids at younger ages and for longer hours each day. In all of this Crystal Biltz saw an opportunity. As Jesse put it, “There’s a frenzy here that doesn’t exist in a lot of places.”

When Crystal hatched the idea to start Cassidy, she was in her late twenties, working as a school psychologist at Brentwood School. During her four years there, a significant part of her job centered on helping select each year’s class of kindergartners—roughly 30 students in all—from a crop of about 300 applicants. She ran tests on the kids and visited 40-some preschools to watch them in action.

If there was a secret sauce for getting into a school like Brentwood, Crystal began to realize the value in holding its formula. In fact, a lot of Cassidy parents would look to her for assistance because of her ties. “I really piggybacked on Brentwood’s credibility,” Crystal told me one afternoon. Parents responded. “It was, ‘Oh, she’s connected to Brentwood,’” a former Cassidy parent says. “She’s probably respected there. Maybe we’ll get in.’” Another puts it more bluntly: “There was a mind-set that Crystal equals Brentwood.”


__Piper

Photograph by Damon Casarez

The Blitzes opened Piper (top) in 2014, with double the space of Cassidy
The Blitzes opened Piper (top) in 2014, with double the space of Cassidy

Photograph by Damon Casarez


In the world of education, preschools are an odd beast. There’s no accreditation system. There aren’t baseline educational requirements to evaluate their performance. Success is measured largely by parental word-of-mouth and, ideally, a clean record with the Department of Social Services. As for preschool directors, all that’s required beyond a high school education is four years of teaching experience and a bit of college coursework in the field.

Whereas directors typically start as a preschool teacher and work their way up, Crystal took a different route: She had been a special education teacher at Canoga Park Elementary School for a few years and received a master’s in school psychology before landing at Brentwood. To make ends meet while in graduate school, she waited tables at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Woodland Hills, where she met Jesse, a fellow waiter. Crystal had moved to L.A. from her hometown of Pittsburgh in late 2000, at 21, with a B.S. in business education. She had cascading blond hair, an upturned nose, and a golden complexion. A customer helped set up Crystal’s interview at Brentwood.

Three years older and originally from Etowah, Tennessee, Jesse was another recent transplant. His penetrating blue eyes and tousled hair gave him what a casting agent might call rugged good looks, and he was already an old hand at career reinvention. Jesse had founded a publication at his Florida college, a marketing consulting firm, and a photography business. In L.A. he started a staffing agency that supplied actors with personal assistants, and he began acting in and producing films. With two partners he also launched a production company as well as L.A. Film Lab, wherein aspiring writers, directors, producers, and actors created short movies and learned things like budgeting and fund-raising.

Sitting in his Piper office last March dressed in jeans and a charcoal gray school T-shirt with the slogan “You Can’t Teach Hustle” in hot pink lettering, Jesse described himself as a creative type always on the hunt for projects. “I think I have a pretty good filter or gauge when I hear an idea that makes sense,” he said. Across the room Crystal, 37, was wearing an off-the-shoulder gray sweatshirt and distressed jeans. This was after the trial spurred by Liberty’s lawsuit and before the Biltzes, for legal reasons, stopped speaking to me. (As for Liberty and Abbass, their PR rep declined to make them available for an interview.)

It was through L.A. Film Lab that Jesse met Brittany Abbass, an aspiring actress originally from Atlanta who was working as a film company accountant. They became friends while cowriting the screenplay for a short film, Redirect; Jesse directed, and Abbass played the lead. Then they worked on another film, Em, in which Liberty had a bit part as an ER doctor. (Liberty’s production company, Freeman Angel Films, has produced a handful of mostly small-budget movies.)

Raised in Gray, Maine, Liberty is 56 years old with a shock of black hair. He owns Brentwood Investments, a private equity firm, and founded Mozido, a mobile phone payment platform that has raised $300 million in financing in recent years; a Forbes article, posted online in July, described its business practices as a lot of smoke and mirrors, comparing them to those of the disgraced bloodtesting company Theranos. A 1989 profile, prominently featured on a Web site registered to Abbass, detailed how, as a “dreamer in a town of 3,000,” Liberty grew up with a father who ran a brickyard. By 21, he had already banked his first million buying and selling real estate. The article estimated his net worth had ballooned to $300 million, but not without controversy. A Maine politician described how he’s perceived by some: “the ultimate opportunist and despoiler of the state, Donald Trump with a Maine accent.”

Liberty started dating Abbass, who is 35 and willowy with fine brown hair, after Redirect, and she went on his payroll. (They married this past spring.) Jesse was soon receiving paychecks from Liberty as well, searching for scripts to develop. The two became friendly. “Michael would have personal issues, and he would call me and we would talk for hours,” Jesse said. It was during this era of collaboration that Cassidy Preschool came into being.


Modern child-rearing is nothing if not codified. There are philosophies to be espoused, styles to be practiced, trends to be followed. Do you believe in unstructured play? Play-based individual learning? Do you want your five-year-old to study French literature and count to 50? Are you a helicopter? A tiger? A mélange of both with a hint of boho wildcat?

With Cassidy, Crystal thought she could create something different: a school that incorporated current early childhood education research and wasn’t beholden to older educational models. Younger children would play while the older kids focused on school readiness. Like many higher-end preschools, tuition would be as high as $13,000 per year (the current fee can surpass $18,000) for three to five hours of preschool a day, with summers off. More workaday schools might charge roughly the same but typically for year-round classes and far longer school days—extending from, say, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. And Cassidy’s facilities would be brand-new, with an indoor artificial tree, ample sunlight, and a large backyard with giant sunshades. “The place itself is supermagical,” a parent tells me, comparing it to a Pottery Barn Kids catalog.

Opening a preschool was not a long-held ambition of Crystal’s; as she told me, it was an avenue to financial security. Together she and Jesse were bringing in about $110,000 per year, but it wasn’t enough for the big house they wanted. Since marrying in 2007, they’d lived in a string of rentals from Van Nuys to North Hollywood to Sherman Oaks. “In California it’s so hard to make it; it’s so hard to buy a home,” she said. The school was a way to “become owners of something potentially huge,” as Jesse wrote in an e-mail to Abbass.

The two couples never drafted a formal business plan, according to the Biltzes. Instead there was a series of e-mails, primarily between Jesse and Abbass. In August 2008, Abbass sent an e-mail to Liberty laying out terms. “Jesse and I think the 50-50 partnership is perfect,” she wrote. Jesse had already begun looking for a location for the school, meeting with architects, getting bids from contractors, and drafting budgets. By March 2009, Crystal had signed up 80 parents. Based on Jesse’s financial projections, it appeared the school might have a shot at being profitable out of the gate. “I just remember thinking we could absolutely have a brand that’s much bigger than this one school in Santa Monica,” Jesse told me. Abbass testified that she and Liberty were in favor of expanding beyond the first school, too.

What confused Jesse was the lack of buzz their efforts garnered. “I didn’t understand why magazines weren’t picking us up and talking about us,” he said. To that end, he hired a PR firm to help create a national and global brand with plans for a clothing line and to fulfill his vague notions of establishing an online educational component that would extend to smartphone apps. “It was limitless. Like whatever you could imagine could probably happen,” he said of his thinking. “I have delusions of grandeur, maybe.”

The first inkling of trouble emerged only the day before the couples were to sign an operating agreement. Abbass and Jesse discussed the terms: Rather than the original 50-50 split, it would need to be 75-25, with Liberty as the majority owner, she said. Abbass testified that Jesse didn’t receive the news well. On a group phone call between the couples that night, Jesse and Liberty yelled at each other. Liberty told Jesse he had no confidence in his budgeting abilities, according to Jesse’s testimony. Crystal cried. Jesse punched a wall.

But the partners spackled over their differences, and Cassidy opened its doors in September 2009. The next year Liberty even agreed to provide the Biltzes a no-interest loan so they could buy an $850,000 three-bedroom house on half an acre with a swimming pool in Woodland Hills. The school already had a surplus of parents hoping to get their children in.


For-profit preschools tend to be the fiefdoms of their directors, many of whom are also the schools’ owners. They might not bother with written policies or well-defined protocols, and practices that would be verboten elsewhere are embraced. A teacher might tutor her students at their parents’ homes—or for that matter, live there, in a guesthouse. Funky things can happen when rules are loose, parents and staff get cozy, and the lines blur. A few years ago Temple Israel of Hollywood preschool was scandalized when a father left his wife for his child’s teacher.

And it’s not unheard of for parents to cultivate relationships with school directors, becoming shopping pals or drinking buddies. Get on a director’s bad side and you can suffer. At Camelot Kids, a sought-after Silver Lake preschool and kindergarten, a 2015 battle over the firing of teachers kindled a lawsuit filed last fall by Tim Disney (great-nephew of Walt) and his wife, alleging their child was expelled because they had invited parents to their house to discuss the firings. The Web site Jezebel chronicled the falling-out with plenty of schadenfreude, noting tales of alleged director and parental naughtiness involving booze, drugs, and cliquishness. A trial is scheduled for next April.

At Cassidy more than a few parents were friends with the Blitzes, whose efforts to keep things “fun” confounded some. “They were trying to create a brand that’s like ‘We’re too cool. We don’t give a fuck,’” says a parent. The school’s application included queries that read as if they were from an online dating questionnaire. Parents were asked to rate their enthusiasm for the band Journey and had to answer the question, “Is everything better with bacon?”

Jealousies and resentments developed. There was talk of how Crystal and Jesse supposedly traveled to Hawaii with a Cassidy family, stayed at another family’s vacation home in Mexico, and took a private-jet flight with parents to a Pittsburgh Steelers football game. Through their attorney, the Biltzes say they paid their own way, but gossip isn’t known for giving people the benefit of the doubt. Tongues continued to wag about parent-staff visits to a plastic surgeon, culminating in breast implants.


RELATED: Jessica Biel’s Au Fudge Is Chuck E. Cheese for the One Percent


The presence of celebrities added to the sour feelings. The actors Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jessica Alba, the Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio, and Harrison Ford’s son were among those whose children attended Cassidy during the Biltzes’ tenure. “I was starting to notice a clear favoritism towards celebrities and their clique,” a parent says. People claim stars received preferential parking and spots for their kids in the most sought-after class schedules. There were suspicions that Crystal advocated hardest for her friends and the celebrity parents when it came to the elementary school admissions process. “I think they figured out a way to get in with these people to have the lifestyle they wanted through the kids,” a Cassidy mother says of the Biltzes.

As with a lot of schools, Cassidy held multiple fund-raising events each year, often with themes: martinis-and-manicures, roller-skating, cigars, poker. Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo sang at the home of a Cassidy family. Sometimes the Biltzes hosted the parties at their house, giving rise to widespread gossip. At one, Crystal “was strutting around in a black bikini” as she poured drinks, says a parent, likening the scene to MTV Spring Break. “Is this a business or is it a sorority party?” she remembers wondering. She and almost a dozen more parents spoke of how they heard that later in the evening at this and various other parties, boundaries were crossed, with people doffing their clothes and swapping partners.

“I don’t know about the affairs and making out with parents,” this mother says. “I didn’t see it. But do I believe it? Yes. They were just that kind of people.” Through their attorney, the Biltzes denied the accounts, but even if the events were based on resentment rather than fact, they spread throughout the Westside.


Given how many small businesses fail within the initial five years, it’s a testament to the Blitzes that Cassidy became such a success in short order. Their own finances were a different matter. Their tax bills exceeded what they earned, they claim, and they were stressed. “It’s like this hopelessness that’s surrounding you,” Crystal recalled, “and then you go home to a house you don’t know if you can afford anymore.” While the Biltzes contend that ownership of the school was supposed to revert to the originally discussed 50-50 split once a loan for start-up costs was repaid to Liberty, the operating agreement made no mention of it. Their marriage began to falter. They’d drive to and from school together in silence and then put on smiles when they arrived.

In 2011, Jesse transferred $44,474 from the school bank account into the Biltzes’ personal account. Shocked, Abbass called Jesse for an explanation. According to her testimony, he said he was angry at Liberty and Abbass. They had stopped speaking to him. Abbass blocked Jesse’s access to Cassidy bank accounts, and she fired him and Crystal’s mother, who had been serving as Cassidy’s bookkeeper for $25,000 a year. Abbass testified that Crystal pleaded for her mother’s job and threatened to have the school’s license revoked if Jesse wasn’t reinstated as business manager, Abbass acquiesced to everything but restoring Jesse’s access to the bank accounts.

Despite their strained relationship, the two couples tried to expand to a second campus. The effort collapsed in January 2013, however, when Liberty’s negotiations for a future school site fell through. At that point Crystal told Liberty they should all focus solely on the existing school, but she and Jesse promptly began putting together Piper. She didn’t mention the new school in July when she wrote to Liberty and Abbass, proposing that one side buy out the other. Several days later and 5,000 miles away on vacation in France, Liberty ran into a Los Angeles businessman who mentioned that a preschool was going in at the same location they’d been considering before. “I have this awful feeling,” Liberty said to Abbass as they sat in a café. When she called the broker, he said, ‘How much do you know?’” she testified.

The Biltzes were building Piper to be like Cassidy—“same idea, same philosophy,” Jesse wrote in a February 2013 e-mail to a building consultant—only more elaborate. There would be a wood shop with mini workbenches, an outdoor crafts area, and a gurgling stream, and they would design the third floor for adults, with a giant kitchen, a pool table, and sofas where parents could hang out during the day. What’s more, the Piper application would pick up Cassidy’s left off inquires about parents’ zeal for Bon Jovi and posing such self-consciously offbeat questions as “Which best describes you? Bacon. Fuzzy Socks. Puppy Breath. Slinky (the metal kind). Snorkel. Moonshine.”

According to an investment prospectus Jesse and Crystal put together, they would earn a combined salary of $325,000 the first year. Since the space was twice as large as Cassidy’s, they could offer early-morning drop-off, after-school care, and enrichment classes such as yoga, Mandarin, and a cooking class called “Atelier of Taste.” They estimated that in two years they would be netting $1.7 million to Cassidy’s $650,000. And in a March 2013 e-mail to an investor, Jesse projected that 65 percent of Cassidy’s 154 preschoolers and 80 percent of the children in the toddler program would migrate to Piper. The figure was based in part on which Cassidy teachers Jesse expected would move to Piper, given that parents’ allegiance to preschool instructors can be especially strong.

In the end, 26 students made the leap along with 11 other staff members, including a handful of teachers and the director of admissions. In the weeks after the Biltzes’ departure, one parent says, “We were getting these weird e-mails, with people resigning and saying how Crystal and Jesse are amazing. It felt like a little cult or something.” There was a sharp divide in parents’ loyalties. “It was almost like when there was Team Angelina and Team Jen,” according to another parent, referring to the rift among fans when Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie. Those devoted to Crystal were dubbed by a parent as “the Crystal-ites.” A Cassidy mother says she and her husband got pushback from the Biltzes when they decided to stay at the school. “They said, ‘We thought you were coming, and we thought you were on our side,’” the mother recalls.

Expecting Liberty to retaliate, Jesse had his investors set aside $300,000 for legal expenses. The court costs turned out to be closer to $1 million, while Cassidy’s have hit $2.9 million, according to testimony. Soon after Liberty and Abbass filed the lawsuit and Hawk’s team descended on Cassidy, copies of their complaint against the Biltzes mysteriously began to circulate among Cassidy parents. In it Liberty and Abbass claimed the Biltzes had breached their fiduciary duty to the school, had violated the business’s operating agreement, and had misappropriated proprietary information to steal business and customers. “Even if 10 percent of what came to light is true, it’s pretty terrible,” a parent says.

Now came the damage control. Abbass signed a declaration that neither she nor Liberty had leaked the documents, and she contacted parents to see if they knew who had. In addition, she and Liberty held a series of what they called town hall meetings. A few parents who later testified and many whom I interviewed praised Abbass’s handling of the crisis but not Liberty’s. A father named Russell Emanuel who attended a meeting testified that Liberty said he was “after Biltz blood” and was going to crush them. He said Liberty bet the assembled parents $1 million that Piper would never open—an outcome he would soon try to ensure by offering $7.5 million in cash to buy the Piper building out from under the Biltzes. “I remember standing on the street outside afterwards,” Emanuel said of the meeting. “Everyone was like, ‘What was that?’” Sam Rogoway, a former Cassidy father who, like Emanuel, enrolled his child at Piper, testified that he was turned off by Liberty’s “abrasive” demeanor during a town hall and that he talked too much about the lawsuit and his expensive lawyers. “I didn’t want to send my daughter to a school where it felt like Donald Trump was the headmaster,” Rogoway said. At one particularly contentious meeting, Marissa Devins, who said Crystal was the reason she had selected Cassidy for her son, jumped up and yelled, “All of us are screwed!”


Parenthood is, of course, full of irrational thinking. Matters can get especially fraught for new parents who find themselves thrilled or petrified as they make some of the first decisions for their offspring. From that perspective, the fallout over the Cassidy breakup wasn’t all that unexpected. A couple of witnesses at the trial reminded the courtroom that we were sitting there because of the educational needs of three-and four-year-olds—a momentary reality check that never seemed to stick, given the high financial stakes. There were the tuition dollars, legal fees, and potential damages, not to mention the millions in hypothetical earnings of babies in utero whose parents keep flocking to the schools, gunning for the Ivy Leagues.

After a day of deliberating, the jury found that the Biltzes and their Piper partners were entitled to $3.4 million, along with additional punitive damages. But before the jury began deciding on the extra damages, the two sides agreed to a secret settlement. Despite the Biltzes’ various missteps, including the omission in the operating agreement, it was surprising to some that they prevailed. But the jury, a diverse mix of Angelenos, seemed to see the case as a David and Goliath one—a naive-in-business couple struggling to get by pitted against a billionaire. Crystal testified to repeatedly reaching out to Liberty to resolve their differences; he always refused, she said, sometimes through his attorney. That dynamic played out in the courtroom, too, where Liberty replied to questions with terse, nondescript answers and never allowed his own lawyers to question him. He wore a crisp navy suit and repeatedly mopped his brow with a handkerchief. He was soft-spoken, his demeanor alternately flustered and argumentative. “He had the opportunity to show a sympathetic side and he didn’t,” one juror says. Liberty also appeared in court only for the two days of his own testimony; Abbass was there every day for three weeks.

So were the Biltzes, and they seemed more at ease and less rehearsed on the stand. They were headed for divorce, but that hadn’t caused them to shy away from starting Piper or from sitting side by side during the trial last winter. When Jesse was on the stand and was asked whether keeping their plans for Piper from Liberty and Abbass was deceptive, he said he was trying to make a better life for his family. The opposing attorney asked if he’d succeeded. “I’m getting divorced,” he said, tearing up. “But financially, yes.”

“The thing that came through to me clearly was their integrity,” the juror told me. “You’ve got a stone-faced Michael Liberty with a path of destruction behind him,” another juror said. “With the Biltzes, you’ve got a path of little kids. Who’s the more compelling one to believe?” Many I spoke with who knew the Biltzes felt just the opposite. “I would call them underhanded,” a parent says. “This isn’t integrity.”

Crystal considered the legal conclusion “a peaceful outcome” but said she still has regrets over the three-year battle. “I really do want good things for Michael and Britt,” she said, “and I hope that this doesn’t ever occur for them in their lives again.”

That seems unlikely. Liberty has been involved in multiple lawsuits over the years, including when the SEC investigated him for defrauding investors of $9 million in the early 2000s; Liberty denied any wrongdoing but settled the case. More recently a former colleague sued him for failing to repay a $200,000 loan. Liberty did not show up for four depositions in the case, exhibiting what the presiding judge called a “troubling lack of respect for the judicial process.” A few years ago an arbitrator awarded a former Liberty employee $1.8 million in a disagreement over benefits and loans, and last spring the SEC and the Department of Justice subpoenaed financial records from a former board member of Mozido, Liberty’s mobile phone payments company.

As of late July the Piper-Cassidy legal battle was still in full swing. The Biltzes’ attorneys were fighting to get Liberty to pay the balance on the confidential settlement, the terms of which were revealed when his attorneys filed documents stating Liberty had consented to a $3.4 million payout that would be identified as a purchase agreement and both sides would sign a mutual nondisparagement clause. His lawyer had also proposed a joint press release announcing that the two schools were moving forward amicably. But by press time Liberty had paid only $1 million, and he was claiming the Biltzes had breached the terms of the settlement by not agreeing to refrain from discussing the jury verdict and evidence. No press release had gone out, either.

After the schism, Abbass had quickly stepped in as Cassidy’s business manager and begun paying frequent visits from the home she and Liberty share in a wealthy subdivision in Orlando. She hired a new director—a respected preschool veteran named Luisa Donati, who has been credited by some parents with improving the school by adding extracurricular activities and transforming the culture. “She looks at what’s best for the kids. There aren’t these secret deals,” one parent says. “People are treated fairly.”

Piper has yet to turn a profit, but the school has plenty of panache. (The children of Reese Witherspoon, Lisa Ling, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, who followed the Biltzes from Cassidy, have all attended.) Crystal and Jesse say their days of hosting fundraising parties and having cozy friendships with some parents are over, and they claim Piper may have allowed them to remain friends. They run the school together from interconnected offices on the third floor, down the hall from the parents’ playroom. When I was there, a couple of motorcycle helmets sat on Jesse’s desk along with a guitar he was in the process of making. He has kept his ambitions alive at Piper by developing a line of merchandise for parents and kids, including the “You Can’t Teach Hustle” T-shirts and baseball caps imprinted with “Piper Republic.” The merchandise page on the school’s site reads: “Self-proclaimed global brand of education and the illest parent-wear.”

“I’m a movie-minded storyteller,” Jesse told me. “I’m so big on the story. I will eat at a restaurant because of the story, or I’ll buy a brand of something because of the story.” With Cassidy, he said, “we were creating that story.” This fixation is in evidence at Piper, where a sign plastered on a wall outside the school reads “Live a Great Story.” And toward the end of our interview, Jesse wanted to know more about my article, turning to me and asking, “Is it going to be an awesome Crystal and Jesse story?”


This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Facebook Comments