501(c)(3), academic freedom, administration, alumni, Beatle boots, businesslike, campus, caring, cash flow analysis, Clarkstown, coming out, Community, counterculture, culture clash, discrepancy, donations, downhill trend, drug culture, educational philosophy, endowment, ESL, Facebook, faculty, falling enrollment, financial crisis, fiscal year, fond memories, Form 990, fundraising, hippies, international students, investigation, long hair, money, newsletter, non-faculty, non-profit, parents, politics, prep school, private school, RCDS, reminiscence, reunion, Rockland Country Day School, school, school closing doors, student-faculty ratio, students, suspicions, sustainability, town and gown, transgender children, trustees, vision, wealth, whisper campaign
In the first two parts, I looked at some of the reasons, both external and internal, as to why RCDS has struggled financially and finally had to close. I look at some more reasons in this third and final part. I also echo concerns raised by others about where the money went, but using my professional skills as a tax preparer for 30 years and a financial professional and auditor for 40 years. And for those who come to my blog to read about transgender issues, I make brief mention of a hope and dream for a new school in the same spirit, one that is geared specifically towards children with an alternative or transgender identity.
Downhill trend: RCDS went in and out of crisis mode throughout its entire history. Someone recently posted on Facebook a column in the local newspaper by a reporter and former teacher about the school narrowly averting shutting its doors. Based on my knowledge of that former teacher and coach who was at RCDS during my sophomore and junior year, that headline had to be at least twenty years ago. So another generation of students was able to attend RCDS since that crisis was averted.
Certainly financial concerns lurked from the earliest days. At least at the beginning RCDS had a group of wealthy backers, many of whom were sending their own children, interested in the school’s success. But there were other concerns and conflicts, even as far back as the first decade of the school’s existence. Those conflicts were over educational philosophy and direction of the school. I’ve already discussed some of those. One of them might be summarized as Preppie versus Hippie. When I arrived, many of the older students fulfilled the dress codes with prep school attire. But longer hair, particularly among the younger students, was starting to creep in and some of the older students were heading in that direction, too. As I recall, some of the trustees and financial backers were starting to balk at the lack of discipline and counterculture attitudes that were emerging. Freedom to explore educational opportunities in a more open manner, yes; freedom to rebel, thumb noses at authority, break rules about sexual mores, smoking (cigarettes and pot) and drinking, no. And this schism was felt in the faculty ranks as well. By the time I graduated, many of the teachers who were there when I started and who were among the faculty in the earliest years had left: Downs (although he returned later), Bridgio, Sandulli, Hyatt, McCurdy, and Gibson; Headmaster McClure, whose first year was my first year, stayed only three years and then left for Princeton Day. His successor lasted only one year.
Yet the consensus is that even in these differences, whether someone stayed or left, while they were at RCDS the vast majority of them genuinely cared about the students and our success. And after you get past the usual student griping about the pressure of tests, term papers and homework, we look back fondly on most of our teachers and the school in general. The school had a sense of community that developed through shared activities with the teachers: sports teams, plays, recitals, field trips, clubs, kite day and undoubtedly some activities that sprang up long after I left.
The sense I am getting from parents (some of whom also went to RCDS), faculty members (current and former) and alumni who had stayed closely connected with the school for various reasons is that the attitudes of some of the school administration and some of the trustees started to change about 5-10 years ago. Since this is all hearsay, I will not name any names. (I will add that I do not suspect anyone in the final school administration who were present at the 8/31 gathering.) But here are some of the comments I have heard: parents of alums were dropped from the contact list even though they were faithfully giving; the administration trashed their relationship with the alumni group; someone must have sold out the school; where has the money gone; a lot of key people have left or resigned in the last two years since the campus was sold (and there could be lots of reasons for that: some innocent and some not so innocent); the educational standards and environment went downhill; the school was not properly prepared for the arrival of international students with a lack of ESL teachers (later remedied); the school had too high an amount of scholarships.
On top of all this, the end was handled in a regrettable manner. I’ve already talked about how the decision so close to the start of the school year on top of the notices sent out in May and June, has been terribly difficult on the students (and their parents), the teachers and staff (and their families). It was the final insult added to a series of injuries.
I have also heard that there were a few heroes in the midst of this debacle, trying to do the right thing. But they were outnumbered, overmatched, outmaneuvered and ran out of time.
As it happens, I was just starting to get more reconnected to RCDS in October 2016, although I had been giving faithfully for a few years before that. (And one time, I was the first person to solve one of Mr. Boyer’s math puzzles.) I had decided that I wanted my school to know the real me. So I began going to events: the school-wide reunion in October 2016, the Holiday shopping village, the spring musical in 2017 and the last two graduations. I was told that the school wanted to reconnect with the alumni and I wrote a series of reminiscences of my time at RCDS which I was told would be put into the school newsletter. It would have run about 6 or 7 issues. Only one was included, in part because the school newsletter, even a digital version that should have had minimal cost, suddenly ceased. I told one of the trustees in 2016 that I wanted to be more involved and never heard from the school.
Even so when we toured the school at the 2016 reunion; when we saw the progress on the new STEAM lab; when I saw the happy faces at the 2017 spring musical: it still seemed like the same positive RCDS experience. I liked the people I met from the administration. When I had positive, supportive one on one conversations with teachers and administrators, there was no hint of anything terribly wrong. The school looked great, the food was great and kids looked like they were doing well. It may have been a patina.
Partially because it is my biggest concern and partially because it is my area of expertise, I am most concerned about what happened to the money. But once again I need to tread lightly here. I do not have access to the books of the school, nor do I have access to the closing documents for the sale of the campus. The only things I know are that it has been widely reported without dispute that the school sold its campus to the Town of Clarkstown in early 2018 for $4.4 million and that I have read RCDS’s required Form 990 filed with the IRS for its fiscal year of 7/1/17 to 6/30/18. Form 990 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019 is not due until November 15, 2019, so it is not available for download with the IRS as of a few days ago.
With those caveats in mind, I have cause for concern. This caution has to be kept in mind: there could be an accounting reason that is particular to non-profit organizations that explains it. But based on a cash flow analysis of the Form 990, the numbers don’t add up as far as I have been able to dig with what I have available to me. I’ve heard possible explanations offered up: what if the Town was allowed to pay in installments under the contract of sale? Then, it should show on the balance sheet as an asset of some kind. What if the school took out additional credit lines against the property to keep going? Then that should be offset by additional cash coming into RCDS when doing the cash flow analysis. What if there were $3.4 million in mortgages prior to the 2017-18 fiscal year? Then why does only $2.1 million show up on the Form 990 reported to the IRS? But until I have more proof, all I am willing to say publicly at this time is that the discrepancy appears to be major.
Should it be looked into further? I believe so. If wrongdoing was done, those responsible should be held to account and as much restoration made as possible, especially to the parents who paid out tuition for the upcoming year. The sad thing is that if this money had been on hand, the school would have been able to open this month. It would be even sadder if the people were finally in place who had the ability to find a long-term financial solution and still maintain the wonderful education that made RCDS so special to all of its alums. Now they won’t have the chance. But there is more investigation needed to confirm my suspicions about the monetary discrepancy.
I hope there is a better explanation, even if it is my own inexperience or error. I’d rather the school failed because of falling enrollment revenue (and it did drop $550,000 from 2016-17 to 2017-18). I’d rather the school failed because of poor fundraising efforts (it did drop by $120,000 between those two years and without hiring an outside fundraiser, RCDS actually lost $7.000 on its fundraising efforts in 2017-18). I’d rather the school failed because of poor but honest management. I’d rather my hypothesis is wrong either because of my error or because the accountants for RCDS filed Form 990 with an error in the numbers.
When I graduated, there were about 170 students spread over 7 grades, with 1 Headmaster, 5 non-faculty staff members and 27 faculty members (6:1 student-faculty ratio). According to the website, there are about 120 students spread over 14 grades with 1 Head of School, 15 non-faculty members (more if school secretaries or administrative assistants aren’t listed on the website) and 18 faculty members for a 7:1 student-faculty ratio. Some of those extra non-faculty employees are needed because of the International students who were boarded at Dominican College. Even so, the number of employees is about the same for about 30% fewer students. The faculty to non-faculty ratio went from about 6:1 to 6:5. And yet this doesn’t necessarily mean poor management. This might have been necessary to stay competitive with what other private schools in the area were offering for the high tuition being charged. All I’m saying is that I’d rather the downfall be something other than evil.
The surrounding community: For most of the years that I attended RCDS (1963-70), we were called “Hippie Hill” by the public school kids (and maybe adults too … and maybe worse). Boys were wearing Beatle boots and longer hair when the public school boys were wearing button down shirts, chinos, loafers and crew cuts. Girls had long straight hair, granny glasses, boots, and Hippie or Bohemian fashions when public school girls were wearing Peter Pan collars, sweater sets, plaid skirts, wing-tip glasses and either penny loafers or saddle shoes. The drug culture hit us in high school; it hit the public school kids in college or for many of the boys, in Vietnam.
We were disliked for being different. (What else is new?) We were disliked because it was assumed that we were all stuck-up rich kids. (In fact many of us were getting quite mellow on a regular basis and many of us were not rich. I know my parents weren’t.)
Some people say that the animus has never quite gone away. Other sources would indicate that as the times changed and the cultural divide between town and gown narrowed, most or all of the animus departed. I live in Suffern, far enough away that RCDS is not a topic of conversation. People have heard about it and that’s all.
Nevertheless, there is talk and conjecture by some that there was politics involved in the purchase of the RCDS campus by the town, and politics involved in the slow response to the school’s request to renegotiate the lease agreement to give the school some breathing room and the Head of School more time to work out another of the school’s traditional last minute saving moves. Some suggest that it was never about helping the school stay afloat. It was about a land grab by the Town for its own purposes, reasons to become known when the Town makes its next move after the school is cleared out. I have heard from more than one person close to the school that there was a shadow effort, sources unknown, that were at work countering the attempts to find the funding, whether through donations or new tuition paying students, or any other legal means to keep the school afloat and on a new path to sustainability.
I would love to see a school on that campus again, either a revival of RCDS or a school with the same spirit of RCDS but one that is geared as a place of learning and refuge for children who identify as part of my gender community, the transgender community. It wouldn’t be Rockland Country Day School any more, but the name I would give it is “The Magnolia School at the Rockland Country Campus”. (If the RCDS campus is no longer available, the school would simply be “The Magnolia School” but the goal would be to use the best aspects of the RCDS tradition as its academic model and the RCDS inspiration would be noted on the new campus.)
As we can see from the example of NYMA during this decade, that would require a large influx of liquid assets. (I would estimate at least $10 million, mostly in cash with some high quality stocks and bonds as well to provide income.) Hurdle number one is the same as the first headmaster wrote in 1961: where will the money come from? Hurdle number two is how determined is the Town of Clarkstown board to get the property back on the tax rolls (assuming that they can find a developer willing to pay their price) or to keep the campus as an additional recreation site for their own residents. Hurdle number three is outbidding anyone else who wants the property if it is put up for sale.
Even so, land and property, while not strictly fungible, can be found elsewhere if there are enough people with the vision to make it happen plus the ability to provide or find sufficient funding to make it happen. And then it would remain to be seen if it could be run in a businesslike fashion without losing the special qualities that made RCDS so beloved by so many of its alumni.
There are 444 listed members of the Rockland Country Day School Alumni Group on Facebook (which is open to anyone who attended the school, even if they did not graduate, plus former faculty and staff). Of that number, 65 have joined since the school announced its closing. What can we do to keep that momentum going and accomplish something worthwhile with it? The floor is open for suggestions.
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. – Proverbs 29:18