In the Dark at Park Avenue School

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:03

    Building records show plans to move the school picked up steam months before parents were told

    This summer, parents of children who attend the well-regarded Park Avenue Church Christian Day School on the Upper East Side were blindsided by news that the school was moving, effective immediately, to a temporary location on the Upper West Side. Since then, some parents have complained that the Park Avenue Christian Church, which runs the school, should have given them more advance notice, or at least a chance to look elsewhere for a new school home for their kids.

    Now, building department records reviewed by Our Town show that the church had more than enough time to give parents a head's up. The records indicate that the Park Avenue Church was making renovations to its school's new Upper West Side location as early as March, despite sending out tuition bills to parents in early-August with no indication of the cross-town move.

    Parents learned in mid-August of the church's plan to move the school to 4 West 76th Street ? home of the Fourth Universalist Society - just weeks before school was set to begin. The move prompted dozens of parents to withdraw their children from the school, which costs about $20,000 a year to attend. Fewer than half of the 204 students who attended the school before the move have left, most of them on the younger end of the 3-5-year-old age scale the school caters to.

    The school was located in a five-story annex next to the church at 1010 Park Avenue for the past 50 years prior to the move in August. Church officials struck a deal last year with Extell Development Corporation to build a 16-story residential building on the site, a revelation that shocked parents when they learned of it in August.

    When asked why the church didn't notify parents of the move earlier, church spokesperson George Artz said, "There are many moving parts to this deal, and the church wanted each one in place before they presented it for a congregational vote in August 2013. The church was only days away from revealing the move to parents when it became public."

    However, building department records show that a work permit application was filed in March of this year for renovations on behalf of the Park Avenue Christian Church. The application called for $265,000 in renovations and was approved in April. The building department confirmed the renovations were completed, making it unlikely that the church wasn't fully invested in the Upper West Side location in March.

    The application initially called for "renovation of the existing space for a new tenant (Park Ave Christian Church)." An amendment to the application was later filed that said the work was being done on behalf of an entity called "Little Day School." A search of state and city records didn't yield any information on a school called Little Day School, raising the question of whether the church used a pseudonym on building-department documents.

    One school parent who asked not to be identified suggested the church delayed making parents aware of the move in order to collect tuition bills for as long as they could before parents withdrew their children. The church sent the third of four tuition bills to parents on Aug. 5, one week before parents learned of the move. According to one parent, the Aug. 5 bill came in an envelope and on letterhead with the 1010 Park Avenue location and gave no indication of the move.

    Artz denied that the church delayed telling parents about the move in order to collect tuition payments and said difficult decisions had to be made to insure both the church and school's existence. He previously told Our Town that the deal with Extell to build the residential tower, which has yet to be finalized, was made for financial reasons.

    "The congregation needs the funds for its very survival," he said.

    A source close to the school said parents were aware it would have to move eventually, as the church's only asset is the annex and air rights above it, but learning that the move would occur this year came as a shock.

    "We knew it was a possibility but we always thought we'd have a couple of years to find a place," said the source, who asked not to be identified in this story. "We figured they would look after us."

    In response to complaints about the late notice of the move, city councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Gale Brewer sent a letter to the church urging it to the refund the tuition of any parents who wish to pull their children out. "As you might imagine, we heard from angry parents -- on both sides of Central Park," the letter states.

    According to one parent, current and former parents of the school are organizing in an attempt to split off from the church. Artz said in an email the church has been looking for a real estate solution that would allow both to survive separately.

    "For the past two years the Ministry Council explored a potential real estate move that would ensure the survival of both the church and the school," said Artz. "Those discussions included moving the school, which has for 50 years occupied its space in the church rent free, and allowing the school to be independent of the church."

    Although the school did not technically pay rent for the annex space, revenues from tuition are controlled and appropriated by the church. A major source of friction in recent years, according to one parent, has been that parents feel too big a portion of the money made by the school is taken for church use.

    The parent said separating from the church will allow the school to develop the Upper West Side location and attract families in that area without the issue of the church managing school funds. Controlling its own financials, the parent said, could possibly lead to an additional Upper East Side location in the future.

    Regardless of the church's intentions, in interviews, those close to the school move expressed frustration, anger, and confusion over the way it was handled.

    "It's really sickening and remarkably un-Christian," said one parent. "It's a wonderful community and no group of parents and teachers and administrators, particularly ones as fundamentally good and decent as this group, deserves to be treated this way."

    Two different sources close to the move said the lease agreement between the church and the Fourth Universalist Society can be traced back to Park Avenue Pastor Alvin Jackson and was made last year.

    "The facts are that the parents have discovered that the church probably knew in the spring of 2012," said a source of the move to the Upper West Side. "And they didn't see fit to tell us."

    Jackson did not return requests for comment and Artz did not specifically address when an agreement was made with the Fourth Universalist Society. Jon Arancio, president of the Fourth Universalist Society, did not respond to the question of when his organization entered into an agreement with the church.