By Janis Fontaine
Parents, teachers and school administrators at St. Joseph’s Episcopal School in Boynton Beach are in shock after St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church officials notified the school that they would not renew its lease on the property on Seacrest Boulevard when it expires Nov. 30.
The private, independent Christian school opened in 1958 at the site. Although established as a parish day school, it became fully independent in 1990. More than 200 students in pre-K through eighth grade are enrolled at the school, and more than 40 faculty and staff will also be affected if the lease is not renewed.
The property is owned by St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church and the church says it “does not have any control over school operations, it only serves as the school’s landlord.”
The school as tenant has had a lease that renewed every five years — with an opportunity for updates and/or edits presented by either party — six times without an issue.
According to a website post by Head of School Kyle Aubrey, the board of trustees of the school was made aware that the church vestry was considering changes to the lease agreement this past winter.
Peter Philip, the vice president of the board of trustees at St. Joseph’s Episcopal School, called the news “a bombshell” on WPTV News. He also said that the board of trustees has been trying to discuss the matter “since February,” but were “not invited to have that one-on-one conversation.”
Then in April, the vestry formally announced it wouldn’t be renewing the lease, news that blindsided the parents whose children attend St. Joe’s — some of them since they were toddlers.
The church hired a public relations spokesperson to handle the fallout as parents wrote emails that said the end of the lease came “without warning or explanation.”
Others think the message is clear in the church’s April 21 letter to William Swaney, the school’s board chair: “Over the last several months, the Vestry carried out a careful evaluation and has determined that the interests of both parties have shifted over the course of the last 10 years.”
In other words, the goals of the church and school have diverged and are no longer in sync.
Heidi Hayn of Boynton Beach, who says she was married at St. Joe’s, wrote in a Facebook post, “We can say with confidence that our school leadership does not understand why this decision was made without any attempt to negotiate new terms for our lease. Our pleas for answers have been responded with vague, blanketed, scripted statements that do not offer clarification or specifics.”
The church’s PR firm claims that “the church remains committed to offering the greatest level of transparency.” Yet no explanation has been given for the nonrenewal. Parents and others affiliated with the school were so upset, they protested in front of the church on April 24, a Sunday.
Parent Eric McCabe, who was at the protest, told CBS 12 News, “We had our children in front of the church crying. We had parents crying. It was unbelievable.”
Inside the church, Father Marty Zlatic told his congregation that the decision by the nine-member vestry was the hardest that church leadership has ever made. The church had been asking for a third-party mediator to discuss the matter, but said its emails went unanswered, while instead a protest during church services was planned and carried out. Now mediated negotiations were planned to begin the first week of May.
Aimee Adler Cooke, the church’s hired spokesperson, wrote, “We remain committed to working with a third-party mediator to hopefully determine terms that are mutually agreeable to both parties. Joint discussions and thought sharing are the only way forward.”
To be better prepared, on April 27, school leadership publicly announced it had retained legal counsel.
Most of the angst among the community comes from not knowing why this is happening, and that the reason for the nonrenewal remains unclear. Many speculate the church will sell a portion of the property. Others deny this motivation.
Parents are likely to understand the church’s need to make solid business decisions, but are upset about the way this situation was handled. Parent Kelly Alexander told WPTV, “This just strikes me as the opposite of Christian.”