West Side Preschool Facing Shutdown

| 17 Feb 2015 | 12:58

Neighorhood institution set to close following church rent dispute

An Upper West Side preschool that's been in the neighborhood for 25 years is facing eviction after the church it rents space from has declined to renew its lease.

The West Side Preschool, at 165 West 105th Street, rents space from the West End Presbyterian Church at the same address. The school has negotiated a series of five-year leases since 1989, but was recently informed that it would only be offered a one-year lease going forward, and that the rent increase would make any deal unworkable.

"This was unacceptable to us, as a preschool cannot operate on a year-to-year basis," the school's board president, Mark Friedman, and director, Denise LaMagna, wrote in a joint letter to parishioners.

The letter goes on to say that the Congregation Romemu, a different tenant in the church since 2008, wished to take over the entire parish house and invest a million dollars in renovations while renting the space for the next 50 years.

The Romemu Congregation practices Judaism with a twist that focuses on integrating the mind and body into Jewish practice. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, the Romemu Congregation that rents space from the West End Presbyterian Church has about 500 member families and is growing.

In the letter, Friedman and LaMagna said the West End Presbyterian Church's reverend, Alistair Drummond, entered into negotiations with the Romemu Congregation without informing the school and told the school board via email that their usual lease would not be renewed.

"This was insulting and disgraceful. It became perfectly clear the church did not care about the preschool nor wish to have it as a tenant," said the letter.

The school was offered a five-year lease with a 10 percent rent increase every year - beginning with the first year - which they turned down as unreasonable.

"Having been a cooperative and responsible tenant and the only constant reliable income for the church for 25 years, it is truly sad that their actions are forcing us to close down our preschool in June 2014," said the letter.

In an interview with the West Side Spirit, Rev. Drummond said the decision to modify the preschool's space-sharing agreement came from the church's governing body, not from him personally.

Rev. Drummond, who's been with the church for 19 years, said there were multiple factors in modifying the agreement, not just financial. He also declined to discuss when negotiations with the Romemu Congregation first began.

"It wasn't at all unusual for us to ask for a step-up in contribution from them," said Rev. Drummond, who disagreed that the proposed 10 percent annual increase over five years was exorbitant. "We entered into negotiations with the preschool with every expectation that we would reach a satisfactory agreement. It was by no means at any point an effort to say that we wanted them to leave or that we had any kind of desire that they would leave, that's far from the truth."

Reached via email, LaMagna, who is a founding member of the West End Preschool, said the school's board is not considering moving to a different location. "The board is not relocating the school. It is an extremely time consuming task, dealing with all the city agencies," said LaMagna. "Most importantly, it is a huge financial undertaking, which we are not able to do."Friedman and LaManga indicated that they want the parishioners to intervene, but are unsure how they would do so. The letter goes on to say that "trust has been broken" between the school and the church.

The West Side Preschool has an enrollment of 29 students and six faculty members. The tuition ranges from $13,300 to $16,000 a year.

The situation facing the school echoes a similarly bitter dispute, in which the Park Avenue Christian Church recently moved its venerated day school to a temporary location on the Upper West Side to make room for a 16-story residential building in the school's former space. The church only told parents of the cross-town move two weeks before school was set to begin, prompting some angry parents to withdraw their children and seek tuition reimbursement. Those that stayed with the school have indicated that they're interested in splitting off from the church.

LaMagna said she feels the deal between the church and Congregation Romemu was made in secret by Drummond and the church's ruling board, also called the "session."

"I strongly believe Drummond was secretly negotiating behind our backs and we absolutely feel betrayed by his and the session's actions," said LaMagna.