By Steve Plunkett
St. Joseph’s Episcopal School, locked in litigation with St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church — its neighbor and landlord — will shutter its campus at the end of the school year.
The school’s board of trustees announced March 31 that it made the “agonizing decision to close” in a meeting the day before, Board Chairman Bill Swaney and Vice Chairman Peter Philip said in a letter to the school community.
St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church, which owns the property on which the school has sat for 60 years, told the school in April 2022 that it would not renew its lease. The school sought accommodations with the church and looked for a new location, “only to learn that extensive permitting and remodeling would prohibit the completion of any move for at least two years,” the trustees’ letter said.
“Despite all these good efforts, it is clear now that the church has forced the school to close,” the trustees said. “We’re devastated for our students, parents and teachers.”
In a Facebook post, parent Kayla Chomko of Boynton Beach shared her sadness: “We can’t even believe this news. Our children spent their most precious years being loved on, supported, educated and cared for by the amazing faculty and staff. Our hearts are in a million pieces.”
The school on Feb. 20 lost its bid for an injunction to let it continue operating on the church’s grounds until a lawsuit between them was resolved. Circuit Judge Bradley Harper ruled the school did not have “a substantial likelihood of success … given the absence of any writing which establishes the existence of a 99-year lease agreement.”
The school claims it has an oral, 99-year lease to stay where it is, at 3300B S. Seacrest Blvd., until the year 2093.
The church said the school signed a five-year written lease in 2012 and was given a five-year extension that expired in November. Both sides last year agreed to extend the lease until June 30 while the dispute headed to court.
The church has not given its reasons for not wanting to renew the $5-a-year lease.
“We remain perplexed about why the church chose to ignore the interests of our constituents,” the trustees said in their letter. “We are extremely disappointed and angry that the church has behaved so callously.
“Perhaps above all, we are crushed that the school will no longer exist in service to the community of which it has been so integral a part.”
The school urged people who paid for inscribed bricks in its Swaney Courtyard to retrieve them. “We feel it is important for us to hold onto these memories as we embark on a new chapter. If you would like to have your brick, we invite you to email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a time to pick up yours,” it said.
Tami Pleasanton, who retired as head of school in 2016, said the school employees represented the best of what it meant to be educators and mentors.
“While the future of St. Joe’s is no more, the legacy and memories will live on — there are so many good, kind, and wonderful things to recall and to feel good about,” she wrote on the school’s Facebook page. “We did a good job ... and then some.”
The school had 175 students enrolled in pre-K through eighth grade. While the two entities share the St. Joseph’s name and the same location on Seacrest Boulevard, the school split off from the church in 1995.
That was a year after Swaney gave the church approximately $2.5 million worth of stock in his company, Perrigo, “for the express purpose of the church constructing buildings and facilities for use by the school,” said the school’s lawsuit, which has not officially been withdrawn.
Swaney, the suit claimed, made it clear to the church’s vestry that he was making the gift in exchange for a promise, made orally several times, that the school would never be displaced from the property. The church sold the stock and built a gymnasium, library, classrooms and administrative offices.
The trustees' letter said the school’s Early Childhood Academy, at 2515 N. Swinton Ave. in Delray Beach, will remain open next school year.