Tensions have reached a boiling point between the parishioners of Christ & Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the staff and parents associated with The Day School, a nonsectarian preschool that has been utilizing part of its premises at 120 West 69th Street for the past twelve years.
In late April, the church made the unexpected announcement that it would be closing The Day School at the conclusion of the 2022-23 school year. The church cited reasons including mission realignment, financial restructuring, dwindling enrollments and necessary repairs for their undercroft.
The Day School parents and staff members feel they haven’t been given adequate time to find alternative options, while perceiving a lack of empathy for not giving school employees severance pay. They’re also calling for transparency regarding the church’s financial situation, and have expressed concerns about the potential influence of the school’s nonsectarian status on the church’s decision.
On April 27, days after the Christ & Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church announced the closing of The Day School, Interim Rector Rev. Canon K. Jeanne Person wrote a letter addressed “To Families of The Day School of Christ & Saint Stephen’s Church.” Person expressed “sincere gratitude to the School’s excellent directors and teachers, and to you, the families, for the community you have sustained, despite challenges, while providing young children with a strong foundational education for life-long learning.” She also thanks Sangeeta Singh, part of the founding team of The Day School for her “grace; skill, experience, and leadership; dedication and hard work; collegiality; and genuine love for the children cannot be duly praised in words. She has been the heart of the School through times both joyful and difficult. For all she has offered, and all she is, we give thanks to God.”
Also included in the letter are circumstances, both long-standing and newly arisen, that led the Vestry members of the church parish, the governing authority of The Day School, to make the decision to close its doors at the end of the 2022-23 academic year. This included an in-depth review of the parish’s mission and resources “towards a mission-aligned financial restructuring that if not undertaken, purposefully and quickly, would soon threaten the parish’s viability.” The letter stated enrollments in The Day School were not going to rise to the needed levels. Free government-sponsored preschool programs and an influx of competing early education schools in the area, along with families moving away from New York City since the pandemic, were the core factors noted.
The Vestry concluded that in order for The Day School to achieve success moving forward, there would need to be a greater financial investment by the parish, including higher teacher salaries, additional staff, classroom improvements, and building investments. According to the letter, these are investments the parish cannot afford.
A conditions survey was also conducted by a consultant. The report noted “several concerns that are contributing to water ingress into the Undercroft and other lower-level spaces, and likely structural weakness in need of remediation.” It was also reported that the church’s heating and cooling systems are in need of repair and due to the “significant deferred maintenance” that needs to be addressed, they believe it would be unsafe to have children in the building when they begin this work.
On April 28, a day after the church’s letter went out, the directors of The Day School wrote a letter back to the church, though ILTUWS has been unable to access this document.
Things get noticeably edgy during a Zoom meeting that took place on May 18. Interim Rector Rev. Canon K. Jeanne Person was joined by two Parish wardens, Janice Bennett and Robert Howard, to answer a list of questions they’d received from The Day School community, with six on the agenda to be answered. The first asked, “Didn’t The Day School have a budget surplus of $70,000 in 2022? The abrupt closing of The Day School feels like an attempt by the parish to cannibalize the school’s surplus at the expense of the school’s staff and families.”
Canon stated that in The Day School’s twelve-year history, it “arguably has never had a surplus, or what you might call a profit.” Canon claimed that instead, the school makes a “contribution” to the overall parish budget. The Interim Rector also stated that from The Day School’s inception, it operated in a way that shielded it from facing its full operating costs. Canon mentioned that the school does not pay rent or utilities, and it takes up the largest footprint in the small church building. Not paying for the full cost of the “professional cleaning service” was also mentioned.
“This was just the way the school was structured from the beginning. It might have been to encourage the school’s viability and to protect its operations, but it’s a costly thing,” noted Canon, who felt the parish was generous for offering a free space and administrative support. This structuring, according to Canon, left the school in the red for many years for its “contribution” to the parish’s overall budget.
Canon referenced the preliminary numbers for the first quarter of 2020 to 2023, saying “The tuition [that] you the parents are paying did not cover even the costs of staff salaries and benefits. Let alone everything else needed to rent.” Canon explained that in the first quarter of 2023, The Day School’s contribution was negative $25,000 to the parish.
In regard to the 2022 surplus, Canon referenced the school’s success at fundraising as a core component in making some positive contributions in years past, but not for all previous years. She also mentioned that during the 2021-2022 school year, the school received a grant from New York State for early education programs to help them remain open during the pandemic. Canon says this led to an overall positive contribution in 2022 but concluded, “All in all, the school is expensive to run. It does not reliably make a positive financial contribution to the parish budget even as it’s defined. And there is further indication that over time, it will continue to become even more expensive to run the school.”
Canon then got into the broad enrollment decline across New York City schools, even before the pandemic began. Citing a crisis in the early education sector, Canon pointed to low birth rates and a surging number of college-educated workers leaving the city as contributing factors to the problem. Perhaps most glaring, Canon said the school had only received eight tuition deposits at the end of April. It was said on Zoom that the school currently has eight students.
In closing to the first question, Canon said The Day School has “a massive footprint in the little church building” which has led to “almost no possibility to use the space for parish gatherings or programs.” Some people in the comments section of Zoom refuted this claim, with Michelle Gurk writing, “I distinctly remember them using the Undercroft pre-covid, for events. The classroom was always put away.”
Here was the second question from The Day School: “The timing of your decision was inconsiderate and disruptive. You were thinking about closing the school for some months, yet you waited until families had little options to find placements, and teachers little time to find new jobs. Couldn’t you have given more advance notice, even a year?”
Canon detailed the timeline of events that led to The Vestry’s decision. She explained that she took the role of Interim Rector in December and got to know the parish “a little bit.” In January, after receiving the year-end financials for the church, Canon said “It became apparent that the spending down of the parish endowment over time was reaching a point where it was threatening the viability of the parish.” This led to the financial restructuring decision which began in February.
It’s here where you begin to see the break between Christ & Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and The Day School.
Canon said over Zoom, “We realized that any kind of financial restructuring that involves significant budget cuts would have to be mission-aligned. We would have to understand what was of mission priority for the parish. And to have those conversations we needed to look at what the mission of the church is overall. Why does a church even exist? What’s its purpose? And we looked at things like the teachings of Jesus, and the commission to his followers were to proclaim the gospel, to teach about him. We also looked at the mission as defined by the Episcopal Church’s catechism, which is to reconcile all things with God through Christ. We looked at our baptismal promises, which has five different promises, one of which is to proclaim by example the good news of Jesus Christ. We looked at the mission of the church overall. And then we began to think about how the parish lives into the church’s mission. We conducted surveys of the parish, including questions about everything that happens in the church building from our outreach programs to The Day School to our music programs to worship life, [and] gathered all of this information. And then after that process of discernment, we began to look at expenses, and the meeting of the Vestry in April was particularly to look at the expenses of the church.”
Canon then mentioned that the parish had conducted a condition survey which was funded by a grant from The Landmarks Conservancy to address years of deferred maintenance. Canon said, “As this was all coming together in March and April, we realized that in consideration of the school, we needed to act quickly. For example, we knew that it would be unfair to let the school hold its fundraising event in early May if we would then have to shut down the school. For reasons of building safety.”
“So, we did our best,” said Canon. She also mentioned that The Day School is not a member of the Independent School Admissions Association “where decisions are made in February, and parents must decide where they’re going to send their children in March. We were already past those deadlines.” Canon said they were trying to be helpful by making the call at the time they did.
This opened up the first round of Q & A. Day School parent Brian Grant asked, “Who had the responsibility for managing the finances of the school since its founding till now?” Parish warden Janice Bennett said the rector of the church (with the support of The Vestry) managed those funds. Grant replied, “So, would it be a fair characterization that the financial situation we now find ourselves in was due to the management of the rector and the vestry realizing there’s not necessarily all the same people?” Bennett said the school is a mission of the church, but if the church itself is not taking in enough revenue and their expenses keep going up, they need to keep drawing funds from their endowment to fill the gap. Something that is not sustainable.
Muys Snijer, another Day School parent, was noticeably upset on the Zoom call. “We can analyze stuff about like, you know, like the structure and this and that. Like that takes time, right? Like that’s several years. It’s not like what, like collapsing buildings.” When Canon tried to respond he jumped back in. “Sorry, let me speak over you. Let me speak over you. It doesn’t take one month to the next, right? It takes time to make these decisions. And you didn’t do that.” Later in the Zoom meeting, Snijer tells the Canon he found it offensive that the letter he received ended with “God Bless.” Snijer exclaimed, “It’s so like, Oh my God. So bad. So bad. Please don’t do that. Stop doing that.”
When Canon said the end time for the Zoom call was approaching, announcing they had one hour set aside, people got upset. Andrew McCullough felt it was “dismissive” to the gravity of the situation to only block off an hour for something so impactful. Canon said if everyone wanted to have other Zoom sessions, “That’s fine. But it’s not going to change the decision of the Vestry.”
Day School teacher Anna Siegel jumped in through the hostility to say, “I don’t think anyone is asking at this point for the decision of the Vestry to be changed. I think that the way in which this was done has irreparably damaged the relationship.” Siegel added, while stating that she felt she was speaking for at least some of the teachers, “I think what we are looking for here, first of all, is an acknowledgment that many families and our beloved community has been uprooted with what feels like not a lot of process or care; that the church now is devaluing the work that is done in the school by being so dismissive of the complaints and so casual about the fact that seven people are out of work well past hiring season because of mismanagement.”
Day School director Sangeeta Singh was emotional. “I have dedicated my life to this school; and it doesn’t mean that you praise me in two sentences at the end of a letter and I feel good about it. No. It’s for the entire community. It’s not just me. It’s the parents, my little children. The children – I live and breath for them.” Singh said that throughout communications over the past few weeks, “The one thing that has been missing is a little bit of kindness, a little compassion, a little empathy.”
By this point, the remainder of the original six questions were abandoned and the focus became severance. Canon said severance for the staff is not under consideration and that “school staff have always had one-year contracts that are dependent on enrollments and that do not provide provision for severance.” She said they would support everyone’s applications for unemployment insurance, “Which will raise our insurance premiums which is an administrative cost.” Canon noted that they did give The Day School staff cost of living raises this year while not being able to do the same for the church staff.
Friction escalates with Day School teacher Molly Bennett addressing the church. “The teachers wrote a letter to you which you did not respond to or acknowledge. I guess that you pray for us that we’re able to find a job, should we wish – should we wish? I mean, I’m a single mother, I need a job. I’m not considering maybe taking another position somewhere. I’m in dire straits now. And I’m not the only one. And that is because you told us this at the end of April. And the idea that you’re going to pay the unemployment insurance … it doesn’t sound like some sort of benefit; you’re causing us to be unemployed, of course you’re going to pay the unemployment insurance.”
Bennett switched gears, “I want to just briefly go back to something that you mentioned a couple of times. That you didn’t involve yourself in the school because, I think, this is how I’m hearing you, your involvement would be discussing Christ. And the fact that we’re a nonsectarian school … this is a pretty touchy subject for some of this, because I don’t know if you know this, but most of the staff is not Christian. We are a nonsectarian school, but I went to a nonsectarian school run by an Episcopalian church for my entire elementary education, and we had chapel once a week. There is a way to do that without being overtly Christian. And that was done in the past at our school, and it seems a little like when you found out we weren’t a Christian school you became disinterested in us.”
With the tension palpable, Canon decides to end the meeting around the one hour and eighteen-minute mark. “I’m going to end this because it’s always a best practice to try to end meetings when we say we do… So, thank you and I wish you good night.”
On May 31, the Day School’s directors wrote a letter back to the church in response to the Zoom meeting, while also noting again that the church never responded to their April 28 letter. “That, along with the tone and content of your town hall meeting, led us to seek a different way of communicating with you. We hope now to address what is still unresolved about the closing of the school in the limited time that remains before the end of the school year.”
“All of us are left grappling with the uncomfortable implications of your words about mission alignment, our collective exclusion from the church’s process of self-assessment, and the very real sense that we have been deceived and our children’s school disrespected.”
The letter then argues that the church should compensate the school’s employees with two months of severance. “Severance is customarily paid to all employees when a school closes. In this case, when it is the church’s financial decisions, rather than our own, that are causing us all to lose our livelihoods, it is even more warranted.”
“We believe it is essential that the church pay two month’s compensation, including salaries and benefits, as severance to each staff member of the school, all of whom continue to struggle with the emotional, logistical, and financial impacts of your decision and its timing.”
On June 7, Canon wrote a letter to Singh and Siegal with three action items. The first asked to set time aside next week so the church can give The Day School staff their end-of-employment letters. Also, to respond to requests for staff to take items from the school. Lastly, Canon wrote, “Please know that it is my intention to respond next week to your Open Letter sent on May 31, 2023. The main purpose of my response will be to provide, at the request of The Day School community, [a] further brief explanation of The Day School’s financials.”