News


Stanford Driving School closes; students stranded

Thousands of refunds remain in limbo

One of the Bay Area's oldest driving schools suddenly closed its doors last month, and hundreds of parents and student drivers are feeling ditched by the side of the road, former clients are saying.

A Palo Alto mainstay, Stanford Driving School shut down on May 18, leaving parents and students scrambling to get their money back -- and to get into new schools during a peak time for driving lessons.

At the heart of the closure is a dispute between business owner Gary L. Morris of GLM Group, Inc., and its would-be owner, Cathy Sechrist of Sechrist Enterprises LLC. Sechrist pulled out of escrow after the deal went awry, she told the Weekly.

Stanford Driving School was one of the largest in the area, with about 14 employees, according to Sechrist. An employee from another local driving school estimated it served hundreds, if not more than a thousand, students.

Ruth Levine of Los Altos signed up with Stanford for eight hours of driving lessons for her 16-year-old son, Eli, paying hundreds of dollars. After two sessions and then scheduling a third, she tried to get in touch with the school last month. That's when she realized the website was down, the building on El Camino Real was empty and it was impossible to reach anyone, she said.

"Turns out they closed more or less overnight without any explanation, leaving us and many other families high and dry. Eventually, after multiple emails, they responded with a letter documenting the lessons so that we could go to another school, pay again and finish the sessions required for a license.

"Many neighbors of ours also lost money -- some hadn't gotten any lessons but had recently paid -- and all were inconvenienced significantly," Levine wrote in an email to the Weekly.

News of Stanford's closing surprised some rivals, who said they have been scrambling to keep up with the influx of former Stanford clients and even to hire a few of the employees who are now out of work.

Karla Valentine, manager at Bay Cities Driving School in Redwood City, said her company and other driving schools are trying to help Stanford students transfer their credits so they won't have to start over. Student drivers can transfer credits for lessons already taken if they have a letter on the Stanford Driving School letterhead certifying the number of completed hours, she said.

Only students under 18 years old need the transfer letter. They have one year from the day they got their learner's permit to finish their driving lessons. All that is required is six hours of driving-school training and 50 hours of driving with a parent or guardian, she said.

Some parents said they have received the letters, which were promised to clients in a message left on the Stanford phone: "A letter will be mailed to you regarding hours completed at our school."

But Palo Alto resident Ben Lenail said the notice did not mention a refund.

"It was an extremely short letter. It was not signed by any person. There was no phone number, no name, no email, no address. It was like a legal notice. It said, 'Sorry for the inconvenience.' At the very least, they could've sold the customer list for a referral to other schools, but not even that," he said.

Stanford asked for $375 upfront when Lenail's second son, Max, enrolled -- a significant down payment for two and a half hours of professional driving instruction at the wheel, Lenail said.

It's not just students and their families who are feeling burned by what has transpired; Sechrist said the aborted deal has left her at her financial wit's end.

Buying Stanford Driving School, which had operated in Palo Alto since 1981, seemed like a good bet, said Sechrist, a business analyst for 22 years. She left the high-tech industry a couple of years ago with the goal of owning her own business and worked for a startup to learn the ins and outs of a small business, she said.

While the business was still in escrow in February, Sechrist said, she began working there, believing she had bought a turn-key operation. But then Morris let the company's lease expire at its Palo Alto location, and she moved the business to 4962 El Camino Real in Los Altos.

She put $40,000 into the business to improve its cash flow, she said.

Sechrist pulled out after discovering certain aspects of the business had allegedly not been disclosed when she made the offer, she said.

After she pulled out of escrow, Morris, who has since moved to Atlanta, closed the business, Sechrist said. Morris did not return requests by the Weekly for comment.

Sechrist said she has lost her life savings and faces additional legal costs.

"I lost my shirt. This was my opportunity to own a business that I felt I can do something with for the community, and it was just a disaster. I would like to let people know how sorry I am. It's very sad for everybody. The saddest thing about it is the 14 employees who lost their jobs overnight because of this," she said.

Meanwhile, Stanford's closure is proving to be a boon for other driver-ed businesses. Stanford's closure affected an estimated 800 to 1,200 people, the office manager of Premier Driving School in Sunnyvale estimated.

Jonathan Zelaya, owner of California Driver Academy in Menlo Park, said his business has been flooded with requests.

"We're booking way out to July now. It is really crazy," he said.

Zelaya said he worked for Stanford Driving as an instructor from 2008 until 2013. He has talked to three of the former Stanford instructors and wants to take on additional workers to meet the demand. And Ken Wang, owner of Bay Cities Driving School, said he is also trying to take on hiring some of Stanford's instructors.

As for clients getting refunds, Sechrist said that identifying who pays is "up to the lawyers." In her view, Morris is still the legal owner of the business.

Morris had owned the fictitious business name since 2006 and abandoned the name on Feb. 13, 2015, according to the Santa Clara County Office of the Clerk Recorder. Sechrist took over the name under Sechrist Enterprises LLC, starting Feb. 2, 2015, but she officially abandoned the name on May 6, according to the clerk-recorder.

DMV spokesman Jaime Garza said students can file an online complaint with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) regarding driving schools, which are licensed by the state. An informational brochure on how to file a complaint and a copy of the form are available at dmv.ca.gov.

A consumer might also have to file a civil lawsuit to recoup their money, he said.

Stanford's customers could potentially get refunds through a bond by a surety insurer, which the business is required to have, according to the DMV.

Comments

7 people like this
Posted by Dorthy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 20, 2015 at 10:12 am

When I was a student at Paly in the late 70's, both drivers education (early morning) and drivers training were offered on campus. Is driving instruction no longer available at Paly? Why not?


8 people like this
Posted by Grumpy Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jun 20, 2015 at 2:41 pm

I believe that it was eliminated as a result of academic priorities, budgeting and liability issues. Driver's Education has been gone from public schools for a long time.


13 people like this
Posted by annoyed parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 20, 2015 at 3:16 pm

I also paid for lessons. Then the phones were disconnected. I called VISA and reported the fraud. I got my money back. If you paid for services that were not given and you have not received a refund and you paid by VISA report the fraud. Don't let them get away with this. If you paid by check call you bank maybe they will help you out.


Like this comment
Posted by Dorthy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 20, 2015 at 3:25 pm

That's too bad - it was a real convenient way to learn to drive. I remember that the gym teacher, Mr. Heart, taught driver's ed. He was pretty good. We saw all the horror driving films like "Death on the Highway," etc.

Drivers training was taught by a real slime ball who ogled the female students. There were three students in the car when I learned to drive - one was a really cute guy I had a crush on. The teacher must have had nerves of steel to teach a bunch of 16/17 year olds how to drive. Fun times!


Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 20, 2015 at 3:45 pm

Drivers Ed was taught zero period by Stanford Driving school at Paly for about 6 weeks each year. My youngest did this 13/14 school year but can't say whether it was available 14/15 school year. This was a free class but they were basically committed to doing the 6 hours behind the wheel instruction with Stanford Driving school. According to my kids, the classes were OK to not so good, with lots of videos, they had strict timekeeping to make sure they had enough hours, then they did a written test at the end to pass the test. The instructors behind the wheel were better than the teacher doing the Drivers Ed, but enough must have been taught as passing the permit test was easy afterwards.


7 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jun 20, 2015 at 7:32 pm

At the end of the article, it is stated that "Morris had owned the fictitious business name since 2006." There is no mention of this issue before then. Anyone know what that means? Was "Stanford Driving School" not a real business?

It sounds like Ms. Sechrist got the rawest of deals. From the unclear description of what happened, this was not really due to a "dispute" among the owners, but possibly some degree of deception or fraud on the part of Mr. Morris. It would be nice if the article could have been clearer about that issue.


5 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Jun 20, 2015 at 9:16 pm

@Steve:

"Fictitious business name" is a standard practice. This is synonymous with DBA ("doing business as"). For simplicity (not that this is absolutely the best information source), here's the Wikipedia entry:

Web Link

There's no deliberate deceit involved. It simply describes a situation in which a business like "Brooklyn Bagel Co." could be owned and operated by "Weyland-Yutani Corporation."

"Fictitious business name" announcements used to litter the classified section of deadtrees newspapers about twenty years ago.


4 people like this
Posted by Bruce
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 21, 2015 at 12:07 pm

I am not really surprised about the closure. Our daughter took lessons there in 2010. The office staff was quite rude and never acted very appreciative of our business. The instructors were decent, but the way that they arranged for their pickups was not cool (piggyback). Therefore, when it came time for our son to learn some 2 years later, it was easy not to choose Stanford Driving School. We went with "A Deluxe Driving School" of Mountain View and were happy. We even won 2 movie tickets from them after giving feedback!


Like this comment
Posted by Truedy
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 21, 2015 at 1:27 pm

I had the opposite experience than Bruce. The office staff was so nice and accommodating, but the instructors weren't always the best. One of them was especially verbally abusive so we did not go back.


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of another community
on Jun 22, 2015 at 12:17 pm

I had heard nothing but disappointed comments from the parents that I knew that used Stanford Driving School. When it came for me to find a school for my kids I called around to get some information. They were horrible, so rude when I inquired on their rates and their policies. I ended up using Driversed.com They were extremely helpful. The kids were able to learn in the same car for each lesson [mini coopers] and request the same instructor. Their cars even have GPS so I can see where the instructor was taking them, and after each lesson, the instructor provided feedback to me and what to work on before the next lesson. I was so happy I didn't use Stanford, other parents--not so lucky.


3 people like this
Posted by enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 22, 2015 at 12:20 pm

I understand if they had to close, businesses in Palo Alto are getting screwed sideways lately. But, keeping the money they did not earn is really bad. I hope people get their refunds.


Like this comment
Posted by Julie
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 22, 2015 at 4:08 pm

My son learned to drive there in 2008. He had a good experience and is a great drive. No tickets to this day!

I agree with Annoyed Parent above. Call your credit card and report the fraud. You should get refunded.

Sorry to lose a good driving school and sorry for the poor woman who was going to buy the business.


1 person likes this
Posted by Disgusted by Stanford Driving School
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 22, 2015 at 10:07 pm

We learned from a trusted friend of a good instructor in Stanford Driving School and went on to sign up their service immediately. We paid $495 full price, including 8 hours of behind-wheel lessons, on July 24, 2013 for my daughter in Gunn High School. Due to college application and other community services involvement, she was not able to start the behind-wheel lesson until early March 2015. Meanwhile, I obtained a written extension of the contract to June 15, 2015. Even with their strict mandate of only one lesson (2 hours each session) per month, we should still be able to finish the 8 hours of lessons by the new deadline (March, April, May and June), if their office managers and driving instructors were supportive and collaborative. Instead, they were rude and arrogant, and seemed to delay lessons as much as possible, perhaps to beyond the June 15 deadline. They would not book any lesson in March, and then canceled our first lesson in April a day or two before the scheduled time. I called to remind them the pressure of the deadline of June 15 and was told that the deadlines would be extended so that we get all 8 hours of lessons. They tole me not to worry about the June 15 deadline anymore. I asked for a written agreement on what they told me verbally and did not get any. It was early April, and they would not schedule us for any lessons in May or June, saying that the instructor's calendar was not yet open for bookings in May and beyond. Our rescheduled first lesson on May 18 was also canceled because they cannot accommodate a change of pick-up location or a 10 min delay in lesson start time. They promised in writing to call me back to reschedule but never did. I called in May and eventually made an appointment for our first lesson in June. On or before June 1, my call to their office was met with an strange recorded message announcing their closure on June 18. My subsequent e-mail on June 1 to demand for full refund went unanswered. From the time I heard their recorded message to the actual closure day of June 18, there were about 3 weeks time but the Stanford Driving School was no where to be reached. We paid $495 almost 2 years in advance, and did not get a single lesson. We are legally in contract before their closure and should be entitled to full refund. Thank you Palo Alto Weekly for reporting on this damaging event. I would appreciate any advice from your readers as well as future investigative reports about this to protect our residents and high school students from abusive business practice.


Like this comment
Posted by Jennifer
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 23, 2015 at 10:54 am

I paid for the driving package 6 months ago. I called my credit card company and they told me there is nothing they can do since the dispute is beyond 60 days from date of charge. Has anyone had success with their credit card company when the charge was made sometime ago?


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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