actuarial, administration, alumni, awards, bequests, Bill Irwin, boarding school, bonding, campus, capital asset, celebrities, Cherry Lawn School, Chinese, Community, Cornell, counterculture, Department of Education, development officer, donation, drugs, endowment, entrepreneurs, faculty, family, free education, Halsted School, irreverence, Jim Fyfe, land, life expectancy, Lower Hudson Valley, New York Military Academy, Niche, NYMA, Oakland Military Academy, operating expenses, planning, prep school, private school, professionals, progressive education, public school, RCDS, real estate sale, Rockland Country Day School, Rockland County, Scarborough, St. Mary's High School, St. Peter's School, suburbs, teacher, tuition, Tyne Daly, unprofessional, US News & World Report, vanity, wealth
While RCDS succeeded academically and in building connections between students, faculty and administrative staff, I look at some of the elements of the school that hindered its financial success. Even so, it outlasted a number of private schools (some day and some boarding) in the area. It may have also been hindered by diminishing advantages compared to the public school alternatives.
Public school improvement: It is difficult to compare, because either there were no ratings of public schools and school districts when RCDS was founded or those ratings were not archived. What we know is that in recent years, public schools in Rockland have won awards and been well-ranked by independent groups or publications. Since 2000, five elementary schools (two of them twice), one middle school and two high schools have received the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award from the U.S. Department of Education. And since 2015, every public school district in Rockland except East Ramapo (the school district with a majority of students going to private schools, mostly yeshivas) has been ranked with an award or among the best by either U.S. News & World Report or Niche (formerly College Prowler). RCDS was founded to provide a quality alternative to the public schools at that time. If the quality of public education has risen to higher levels, it will be harder for parents to justify spending low five-figure tuition costs when their children can get good quality public school education for free.
RCDS culture: While there have been times when the mission of the school has been cloudy and there were different educational philosophies between the founders or board of trustees and the head of school, in general RCDS followed the country day school model of progressive education. What varied over the years was whether the collegiate prep school element would be emphasized or the encouragement of student freedom to explore and develop model would be emphasized. Both elements were present simultaneously regardless of the philosophy from the top down as faculty members varied in their approach. I had teachers in each camp as well as those who tried to balance the two. As a result at least based on the alumni I have known over the years and have recently reconnected with, there is a large dose of irreverence and counterculture among the alumni. While there are a number of professionals (especially the medical profession) and entrepreneurs among the alumni, those who own their own businesses tend to have small businesses. At least in my generation, there was a spirit of anti-materialism at RCDS. And of course there was the drug culture. Some who turned on, tuned in and dropped out didn’t drop very far back in. The bottom line is that while there has been a profound outpouring of devotion to RCDS over the years, especially now that the school has announced its closing, for all these reasons it didn’t translate into a large amount of giving, certainly not enough to keep the school afloat.
Borrowing a line from “A Tale of Two Cities”, RCDS was the best of schools and it was the worst of schools. Or as Jim Fyfe (wearer of many hats, including former Trustee) put it at the school’s good bye event on 8/31, the best part of RCDS was also the worst part of RCDS. It was a family. The students, faculty and administration bonded like family. But too often it was also run like a family, from the heart, not like a business.
Lack of endowment: When RCDS acquired the Pitkin farm, they had more land than they could use. When I attended the spring musical/pajama party in 2017, I was sitting with a number of parents who didn’t realize that at one time, the school’s property extended all the way from Kings Highway to Lake DeForest. Over time, some was sold off, whether for housing developments or Town athletic fields. No doubt that was part of the original plan until the school could develop an endowment fund. But the school ran out of land. Perhaps the school could have sold off some more parcels rather than the entire campus, but the only one left of significant size would have meant losing its only remaining athletic field large enough to host a sport (and the baseball field, barely visible on Google Satellite, hadn’t been used in years).
The cash cow was used up and apparently all of it was used for operating expenses. Using one’s capital assets for operating expenses is poor planning and partially based on wishful thinking that a rabbit can be pulled out of the hat in the future. Like Bullwinkle, RCDS always had the wrong hat. Whether past administrations got complacent because of the land sales or they tried and tried to build up an endowment but couldn’t because of current deficits, the end result is the same. Without investment earnings on an endowment fund to supplement the income from tuition and fees, a school either needs to cut down on spending, increase enrollment or increase tuition (which usually is self-defeating unless the school was underpriced).
Part of the problem is actuarial. Strange as it may seem, with increased longevity in the U.S., a school 60 years old is only now starting to see its earliest graduates reach the end of their life expectancy. I’m not expecting to have a large estate unless something wonderful happens in the next few years, but I did include RCDS in my will for a significant percentage. I’m sure others did, too. That would be one source for an endowment fund if the school had the foresight and enough means to use it that way. But until bequests from alumni start to come in, other sources have to be tapped.
Encouraging the more loyal and wealthy parents of students to include the school in their will would have been one way. Appealing to vanity or a sense of community (plus advertising) is another. Donate enough money and a building or the chairmanship of a department will be named after you or your company. For example, Adrian Durant is not just a head coach at Cornell. He is “The George Heekin ’29 Head Coach of Men’s Track and Field and Cross Country”. While he was still alive, George donated enough money to Cornell that he was able to have them name the head coaching position of those teams after himself. Presumably the income from that donation pays the salary of Adrian Durant, his predecessors and his successors. If it would have put the school on a firm financial foundation, it would not have bothered me one bit to have the John Doe Chairman of the English Department, Mary Roe Children’s School Building or XYZ Corporation STEAM Lab.
I had a recent phone conversation with someone who attended RCDS when I was student but did not graduate. She did not attend the 8/31 gathering. She knew details about many of the school’s founders as well as parents of the students in the early years of the school. She named 10-12 wealthy families associated with RCDS who could have easily established an endowment fund in the early years of the school. There may have been more. Some may have intended to but changed their mind as the students and school became more countercultural. Some might have thought that their donations to buy the farm with excess land to sell off had been sufficient on their part. No doubt some had different priorities for the bulk of their estates, or their fortunes changed or taxes ate up a significant portion of their holdings. And perhaps some would have given much more if asked. The facts of this matter have been lost to time.
RCDS is not alone in terms of private schools that closed in the Lower Hudson Valley and northern NYC suburbs. A few years ago, I did an online search of the private schools that RCDS played in sports when I attended. Roughly half of them have closed although one reopened. I pitched against St. Peter’s School in Peekskill (NY) the year they closed in 1970. Oakland Military Academy in New Windsor (NY) closed in 1972. I remember throwing out a runner at home plate on the fly from right field in a game at their field in 1969. A series of fires at Cherry Lawn School in Darien (CT) forced that school to close in 1972 due to declining enrollment (concerns about safety) and difficulty getting affordable insurance coverage. I remember playing at their field and making a long running catch from second base into short right field, and then Peter Yang ’69 catching me to make sure I didn’t fall down. Others that are no longer in business include Scarborough (Briarcliff Manor, NY; closed 1978), Halsted School (Yonkers, NY; closed 1983), St. Mary’s High School (Greenwich, CT; closed 1991). New York Military Academy (aka NYMA, Cornwall, NY) was scheduled to close in June 2010 but alumni and local business leaders kept the school alive by raising $6 million in a matter of weeks and by planning to sell off underutilized portions of their campus. It turned out to be a band aid. Enrollment continued to decline, they failed to open in September 2015 and the school headed for the auction block. The school was acquired by a non-profit corporation led by a Chinese national real estate mogul, reopened with a handful of students (both returning and recruited) that November, had 29 students the following academic year and has about 100 students now. Only time will tell if the 130 year old school will continue to survive and even grow.
There was a time when celebrities connected to the school like Tyne Daly (first graduating class of ’63) and Bill Irwin (RCDS parent) would come to the school and headline a fundraiser. At some point for whatever reason, I hadn’t seen anything like that in quite a while.
Other alums ask me “Didn’t the school do any planning?” “Did RCDS have a development officer or hire a consultant on how to create an endowment?” I was not on the inside and cannot answer those questions. And even if the answer to some or all of those questions is yes, then the next question would be “Why was it ineffective?” Hopefully others more knowledgeable will be willing to supply answers.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. – Luke 14:28-30