By Janis Fontaine 

After weeks of anxious scrambling to find a school for their children next year, the parents of St. Joseph’s Episcopal School received a reprieve late last month.
Leaders of St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church, which has rented church property to the school for decades, relented on an earlier decision not to renew the school’s lease when it expires in November and have reached a new agreement that will allow the school to remain open until June 30, 2023.
“This is a wonderful way to kick off the upcoming summer break,” Bill Swaney, president of the school’s board of trustees, wrote in a May 26 email to parents.
While the two entities share a name and land on Seacrest Boulevard in Boynton Beach, the school is independent from the church.
Just a few days earlier, a weary Pastor Marty Zlatic had addressed parishioners during Sunday services, imploring them not to discuss the school’s lawsuit against the church. 10527574290?profile=RESIZE_180x180After services, Zlatic warmly greeted the congregation — it was a busy weekend of graduations and milestones so church attendance was good — but declined to say anything about the church’s actions or reasoning.  
Swaney, 84, a big benefactor to both the school and the church, is co-plaintiff in a class action filed May 14 to resist the lease termination. The $5 million suit alleged breach of contract and misappropriation of restricted charitable donations. The lawsuit will proceed as planned despite the extension of the lease, Swaney said in the email.
The tumult caused by the church’s April 21 announcement to cancel the lease prompted outraged responses and speculation on social media and flurries of emails among parents. Some picketed outside the homes of the church’s nine-member vestry, which made the decision to end the lease.
Zlatic has been harshly criticized by school parents on Facebook for taking a vacation cruise after the hectic Easter holidays (a priest’s busiest time) with his wife, Dee, just as parents found out about the lease.
“I worked every day,” Zlatic said of his two-week vacation.
Some parents think Zlatic, 65, wants to retire and they still cannot fathom the church’s reasoning for the sudden non-renewal of the lease.
Despite a claim of “transparency,” the vestry has been silent. According to the church’s website, the vestry had sincerely hoped that mediation would resolve the dispute, but the school elected to file a lawsuit instead. 
The school claims it was “blindsided” over the non-renewal of its $5-per-year lease on church-owned land after more than 50 years.
While many suspect that money is the root of the dispute, the lawsuit claims that the deadlock started because of mask mandates.

Board president has big investment in school
As children returned for the 2021-22 school year, the school’s leadership opted for a mask-optional classroom. The lawsuit alleges that “in July/August 2021, the Church vehemently disagreed with the School’s mask policy for the current school year,” and the school leadership points to that disagreement as the heart of the matter.
Swaney admits that masks were the only issue he could point to where the school and church differed.
The Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida had been exceedingly cautious where the coronavirus was concerned, and while the diocese dictates what its fellow churches and schools — like St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s Day School — must do, St. Joseph’s School is independent and free to make its own decisions. 
Since Swaney and his wife, Nancy, joined the church in the late ’80s, he has funded repairs and improvements to the church buildings and paid for sabbaticals and pilgrimages for staff, but most of his attention has been on the school. “I have 17 grandchildren,” he said. “I care deeply about the kids.”
“We tried to have a conversation back in February and we’ve been trying ever since. I don’t think it’s about the money,” Swaney said by phone from Michigan before the agreement was announced.
He said the church has other strong donors and a nice endowment.
Even though he’s not physically in Boynton Beach, “there’s still Zoom and email,” he laughed. And he’s found the positive side: “The school is really doing well, and there are a lot of good people working to resolve this.”
In February 1994, Swaney donated 50,000 shares of stock of his company, Perrigo, which at the time was worth approximately $2.5 million, to the church “for the express purpose of the church constructing buildings and facilities for use by the school,” according to the lawsuit. 
Swaney made it clear to the vestry that this gift was being made in exchange for a promise from the church that the school would never be displaced from its property. The church sold the stock and built a gymnasium, library, classrooms and administrative offices.   
In 1995, the school, which had been under the umbrella of the Episcopal Diocese, split away from the church and incorporated independently from it.
At the private school, tuition and fees range from $12,000 for pre-K half-day to $18,000 for fifth through eight grades.

City concerned, parents speculating
The church — like many churches nationwide — is struggling to stay afloat. The church’s annual report for 2021 shows that it met none of its goals for income and it saw extra pandemic-related expenses for cleaning and sanitizing. 
Andrea Barnett, a St. Joe parent, spoke to the Boynton Beach City Commission meeting on May 18, calling out anyone interested in profiting from the valuable acreage. She said the commission has “a moral and political obligation to eliminate any internal or external parties that are enticed to develop that land where our children once played.”
After listening to dozens of school supporters, commissioners said no zoning change requests had been made, but appeared concerned about the possible loss of a school in their city. 
Eric McCabe, who owns McCabe Brothers Construction, has two kids enrolled at St. Joseph’s and one who has already graduated.
He told The Coastal Star he and his kids “don’t connect” to Father Zlatic, who doesn’t support the school. “You have to have a unifying pastor. I heard a lot of the parishioners had no idea what was happening. I feel like we’re losing our church and our school.”
Although parents at the school suggest it’s a real estate deal the church is pursuing, the church denies it. In a statement on its website, the church spokesperson wrote: “… we feel it is imperative to clearly state that there are no plans to sell or develop the property.”
McCabe would just like to get to the truth.
“There’s a lot of speculation,” McCabe said.
Someone suggested a seminary might be a possibility. The fair market value of the rental of the school’s property is estimated in the church’s tax filings at $695,339 annually — money a struggling church could use for survival.

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