The morning after workers at Little Minds Learning Center in River Falls walked off the job, alleging problems getting paid for their work, Little Minds franchiser Todd Barnhardt sat at a desk just inside the closed facility’s entrance, laptop open, his lone presence emphasized by the absence of activity.

Barnhardt, who founded the company in Hudson with his wife Stacy in 2008, came to town to address a group of Little Minds Learning Center employees who rallied March 25 outside the building, where they walked off the job. The workers shared heartbreak over forcing families to seek child care elsewhere, but said the lingering issue had reached a breaking point.

“We want to be there for them,” Little Minds Learning Center Director Josie Groth said of the families who bring children there. “But unfortunately we’re not being paid.”

Whitney Yates, a Chippewa Valley Technical College student living in River Falls, began working at Little Minds in February. She said she immediately “fell in love” with the families who brought children there and her coworkers.

The paycheck issue, she said, has been the lone problem.

“It’s been really hard to live, especially when your paychecks are bouncing or they’re not cashable,” Yates said. “This is really hard. This is a great center. We’re just trying to fight for our center here.”

According to Barnhardt, local management is responsible for daily operations. Issues with payroll are isolated to the River Falls location because of enrollment issues over the past two years, he said, adding the most recent situation was spurred by a “glitch” with their bank.

He said he did everything he could to ensure staff got paid, including writing personal checks to the company to cover some expenses.

But problems with timely payments didn’t stop with staff.

A small claims lawsuit filed March 12 seeks to evict Barnhardt and Little Minds from the River Falls property. The suit alleges the facility owes the landlord, La Crescent, Minn.-based firm WI Development LLC, $191,309 in rent and “guarantee obligations.” The suit states the landlord requested Little Minds to vacate the premises “but it has refused to do so.”

The case is set for an April 2 eviction hearing before St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Nordstrand.

Groth said payment problems at the River Falls center first arose in fall 2018 and has since resulted in significant staff turnover. She said just four of the 30 workers could access funds from their most recent paycheck last week, which prompted the decision to walk off.

The River Falls development, however, does not appear to be isolated.

Illinois, Colorado issues

A December 2018 news report from WAND-TV from Decatur, Ill., states a Little Minds Learning Center there closed after employees reported payment problems.

Jenette Stevenson, a former Little Minds director in Batavia, Ill., told RiverTown Multimedia she read news reports from the River Falls situation and was struck by similarities she experienced.

“The same thing is happening here,” she said.

Stevenson said she quit in February 2019 after payment discrepancies; she said at least three checks she received from the business bounced.

“I can’t live off fake money that I don’t have,” she said.

A lawsuit filed July 2018 in Cook County, Ill., Circuit Court against LMLC Holdings and Barnhardt alleges Barnhardt proposed an investment opportunity to an acquaintance “upon learning she had recently received an inheritance.”

The filings allege Barnhardt in 2014 promised the plaintiff half ownership in a new Little Minds Learning Center in Chicago for $170,000.

In December 2017, Barnhardt, according to court filings, told the plaintiff their investment was “gone.”

Barnhardt contends each of the allegations presented in the lawsuit are erroneous.

“You can sue anybody for anything for $200 to $300,” Barnhardt said. “I just happen to be the face of this business, which is why my name gets attached to everything, OK? In terms of licenses and why my name’s attached to it, it’s because I have an affiliation with it and I’m the face of the company, OK?”

There are three other small-claims cases in St. Croix County against Barnhardt.

According to a 2017 small claims suit brought by St. Paul landlord Larry Cramer on behalf of LRC Management Co., Barnhardt’s LMLC Holdings Inc. was behind $2,145 in rent for an office in Hudson. That case was settled later that year through mediation.

A separate 2017 small claims court filing states LMLC didn’t pay $3,118 owed to River Falls-based Cudd Lawn & Snow Service. St. Croix County Court Commissioner Timothy Heckmann later ruled in favor of the lawn and snow service, ordering Barnhardt to pay a total of $3,267.

Barnhardt was also sued in 2016 by the buyer of his former home in Hudson, where dog urine allegedly damaged flooring there. Barnhardt was ordered to pay $1,192 toward repairs and labor.

Health scrutiny

Aside from payment issues, some Little Minds facilities have faced scrutiny from state health departments as well.

A facility in Littleton, Colo., which opened in July 2014, according to Colorado Department of Human Services documents, was shut down by the state based on the licensee’s “consistent, willful and deliberate violations of safety standards.”

Barnhardt said ongoing legal proceedings prohibit him from discussing the Littleton facility, but told Denver’s ABC affiliate at the time of the closing that the company had a “significant disagreement” with DHS and that multiple attempts to get the agency and the attorney general to return messages were unsuccessful.

Regional Little Minds facilities in Hudson, River Falls, Onalaska and Oakdale, Minn., have had health department issues as well, with each facility receiving citations in the last year.

Over the last three years, the Hudson facility was cited 21 times by the Wisconsin Department of Health according to Youngstar, the state’s child care quality rating and improvement system. In May 2018 a 4-year-old was left alone in the bathroom with the door closed for more than 15 minutes, the website states.

The River Falls facility had six violations over the last three years, according to Youngstar, and

Barnhardt is listed as the applicant/licensee for each of the Wisconsin Little Minds facilities on the site. Onalaska had more than 70 violations listed for the past three years.

Little Minds has 24 listed locations on their website in Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, with 14 locations marked as “coming soon.”

Barnhardt said there is speculation he has taken money from Little Minds; he called those allegations patently false.

“There’s not one of those claims about me doing something illegal that’s legitimate,” he said.

Barnhardt also denied claims that he owns Sconnie’s Donuts, a donut shop that opened in Evergreen, Colo., within the last few years.

Barnhardt said a “relative” owns the store.

Stacy Barnhardt, who helped found Little Minds Learning Center, is listed in Colorado Secretary of State business filings as the one who filed for the Sconnie’s Donuts trademark.

As for the River Falls location, Barnhardt says its future has yet to be decided.

“We’re still working through those details,” he said, adding he plans to make an announcement in the next couple days as to where they go from here. “It’s a lot less story than is actually here and it’s been manifested by social networking and young people.”