The diocese claims the on-site Middle Village Charter School violates the intention of the property agreement signed by the diocese and the board nearly 37 years ago, and that the board has failed to pay the diocese its fair share of the rent paid by the charter school.
On November 4, the nonprofit Board of Trustees, which operates the school’s campus, sent a letter to alumni, families and community members claiming they in fact paid the obligatory fees in question.
History of The School
In 1975, after a volatile labor dispute between the Brooklyn Diocese and teachers, the diocese turned over a handful of their high schools in Queens and Brooklyn to new non-profits, run by boards of trustees.
At that time, many saw this move as breaking up the diocese's union with Catholic high schools. Still others felt these schools could not survive if tuitions were to increase in the wake of paying their teachers a higher salary.
Since 1976, the Board of Trustees at Christ the King has been taking unused portions of its sprawling Middle Village campus and adding programs and services that did not compete or interfere with the mission and growth of Catholic education in Queens and Brooklyn.
As enrollment in the high school dropped from nearly 2,500 to below 900 students, according to a source close to the diocese, the changes and focus there have also shifted, but not in a way the diocese expected.
“What are we all doing there if there are only 800 kids in Catholic education and potentially thousands who are in other programs?” said the source. “It is no longer a place were other programs are supporting Catholic education. It’s a place where they are just doing some Catholic education and most of their efforts are in other programs.”
A childcare center was built in one wing of the building in 1993 and an adult continuing education center in another wing in the late 1990s. Those programs seemed to be fine, but with the establishment of a charter school aimed at attracting grade school children who would pay no tuition, the diocese has taken exception.
There are less than 100 Catholic elementary schools left in the diocese, and enrollment has been dropping significantly; the diocese sees charter schools as one of the reasons. Some elementary school principals were so upset at Christ the King, they were not invited to participate in some High School Open Houses run by Catholic Elementary Schools in recent years.
The checks were sent
The letter sent by Christ the King to it’s community states that, “since July 2013, the board has been donating 40 percent of the rental income it receives from the charter school to the diocese’s St. Elizabeth Seton Trust for the Preservation of Catholic Education.”
The trust was built in order to grant scholarships to Catholic schools, which might be negatively impacted by new charter schools.
After news reports surfaced last week indicating that the diocese was never paid rent for the charter school, this newspaper was able to obtain copies of checks written by the board to the trust dating back to July 2013.
After sending copies of the checks to Marty McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the diocese, he admitted they were improperly handled, but, the amount does not shed light on what is actually owed based on the property assessment.
One check from the board to the trust was cashed in July 2013 for the amount of $5,133.32. Checks thereafter were written for $2,200 per month up through October 2013.
“These checks were incorrectly deposited, but we’ll leave them there and put them against all the money they owe the trust,” McLaughlin said, explaining they should have been delivered to the diocese, which then transfers the money to the trust. “That is the 40 percent of the rental, which we still don’t know.”
McLaughlin says the diocese has been in limbo for the last two years when it comes to the amount of rent they are supposed to receive from Christ the King on the charter school.
Charter school leases typically pay roughly $20 to $25 dollars per square foot according to a trustee of a Charter school located in diocese-owned properties in Queens.
McLaughlin said that during the years of efforts to gain transparency, the board attempted to talk down the required 40 percent in rent revenues for the 50,000-square-foot charter school. Twenty dollars per square foot would come to more than $1 million per year, or $400,000 for the diocese.
Board VP: the deal was set
Thomas Ognibene, vice president of the board, said he was surprised when the diocese issued a lawsuit last week, explaining that payments were already decided following a handshake agreement with the bishop.
The agreement, according to Ognibene, was that the board would send $500,000 up front to the St. Elizabeth Seaton Trust of the agreed-upon $1.7 million of rental revenues directly over the course of two years.
“In the agreement, we were told to pay this money to the St. Elizabeth Trust,” Ognibene said. “We’re not trying to be cute. We didn’t know they were going to sue us.”
McLaughlin said that the diocese did in fact make an offer, but under the circumstances that the board sign a proposed “reverter” agreement.
According to McLaughlin, Bishop Ford, Bishop Kearney, Nazareth, St. Francis Prep and St. John’s Prep all have agreements that would return the property to the diocese in the event they close.
“They refused to sign that clause,” he said.
McLaughlin added that while the current rental assessment is still all speculation, he added that he suspects 40 percent “would be a lot more than $500,000 over the five years.”
“I think they have a profit center there,” McLaughlin suggested, claiming the suit was filed to bring rent transparency to the CK board-operated charter school. “We’ve asked them for it and they wouldn’t give it to us. That’s why we’re in court.”
But Serphin Maltese, chairman of the board at Christ the King, said they have always invited the diocese to inspect their books.
“We have been running that school and the campus for more than 35 years and have never been anything less than open and inviting to the diocese,” said the former state senator.
In response to claims from the diocese that their checks weren’t properly handled, Ognibene said the board has only been operating on previously established guidelines.
“I can’t control their stupidity,” he said. “That’s what they told us, we didn’t invent it. Where did we get the idea to send it to the trust? They’re the ones that told us that.”
Meanwhile, Ognibene said that he is convinced the diocese has plans to shut them down.
“We know there’s a plan to phase out the grammar school education by 2017,” Ognibene said, referring to a diocese plan to turn control of all elementary schools over to boards within the next three years. “I have no faith when they say they’re not going to close schools.”
McLaughlin assured, however, that it is not the diocese's intention to shut down Christ the King.
“We’re not looking to do anything with the school,” McLaughlin assured. “We have no intention of closing the school.”
Monsignor Steven Aguggia, judicial vicar for the diocese, said that while it is unfortunate they had to take the issue to court, there was no other option.
“It is sad that we have to go to these lengths to have the rights of the people who comprise this diocese reaffirmed by the court,” Aguggia said. “But it’s time for the diocese to get a full accounting from the Christ the King board of what has transpired over the years.”