Just how much should the community's voice matter to a nonprofit board? This is what I believe to be the crux of the question to the law suit by parents suing a religious order of sisters who operate the Nazareth Nursery Montessori School. Interestingly, Ruth McCambridge of the Nonprofit Quarterly just yesterday raised the exact same question (not exactly in the same way) about Sweet Briar College.
The question, how much does community voice matter to a nonprofit board is important when that board is planning to take away an offering that has gained value to the community it serves. For-profit businesses often change their offerings but not without understanding demand and of course the impact on bottom line. But as I regularly point out, a board is the surrogate owner of a nonprofit on behalf of the community (of taxpayers and beneficiaries). It stands to reason then that when major decisions are to be made, the very community being represented by a nonprofit board should at minimum be consulted.
This then raises an additional perspective that a board that does not have the voice of those served by its nonprofit around its table cannot be very responsive to those it serves. The lack of voice often explains why many nonprofits go out of style -- they are out of touch. So, staying in touch should include engagement with those served and/or affected by a nonprofit in addition to having those voices around the table as decision-makers. I believe it's just not that hard to accomplish both of these tasks if the board is truly intentional.
Parents Sue to Delay Closure of Chelsea Nursery
They say the leaders of Nazareth Nursery Montessori School didn’t provide adequate notice
Parents whose children attend the Nazareth Nursery Montessori School have long prized its modest tuition, Roman Catholic foundation and homey brownstone environment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. That the school had been in operation for 114 years also made the nursery a safe bet in a city where low-cost options are in short supply.
So when the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, a religious order based in Syracuse, N.Y., in December said it would close the school in June, parents were outraged. Now they have gone to the courts in an effort to force the school to stay open another year.
On Tuesday, dozens of them filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Manhattan alleging that school leaders fraudulently induced them into the current school year, knowing that the school would soon close. They have also accused leaders of failing to give adequate notice on closure, leaving parents in the lurch without other affordable, nearby options.
“What is the rush?” asked Susie Mogavero, chairwoman of the Nazareth Nursery Parent Association. “Is it a building-code violation? Is something nefarious going on? Is the building in contract? Give us a one-year extension just to get our kids transitioned.”
Parents say preschool admissions for children ages 2 through 5 typically start a full 12 months before a school year begins. Parents attend open houses throughout the fall and submit admissions applications in December.
The school was originally intended to serve women working in the nearby Meatpacking District who needed low-cost child care. But Chelsea is socioeconomically very different now, said Rochelle A. Cassella, a spokeswoman for the Sisters of St. Francis, prompting the organization to shift its attention.
Furthermore, the school “has lost money,” said Ms. Cassella. “The decision was to close the school and move efforts elsewhere and meet mission elsewhere.”
Fifty-five children ages 2 through 6 attend Nazareth, and their parents pay $9,850 annually for full-day care, September through June. The school, founded in 1901, occupies two buildings on West 15th Street, just off Seventh Avenue. They are estimated to be worth at least $20 million, parents say.
The buildings haven’t been put on the market, according to Ms. Cassella, and their sale requires approval from both the New York Attorney General and the Vatican because of its nonprofit status.
The hope is that the proceeds from a sale would go back into a program that would serve the poor, said Ms. Cassella.
The Sisters of St. Francis “will vigorously defend our position in court,” she added.
Nazareth Nursery is the sisters’ only outpost in Manhattan and one of only a handful of local day-care centers operated by a religious order. The Sisters of St. Francis run medical centers and a day-care center in central New York, a health-care system and school in Honolulu, and numerous ministries elsewhere. Some 436 sisters work in 12 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Peru and Kenya.
The school is consistently in demand, Ms. Mogavero said, and parents have offered to take on the work of spearheading renovations and fundraising.
According to tax documents for the year ending December 2013, the school had about $600,000 in reserves, and Ms. Mogavero said the nursery has no debt and no mortgage. Nazareth officials declined to comment on the school’s financial position.
“They have never expressed to us exactly why they are closing the school,” said Ms. Mogavero. “It’s just Whac-A-Mole. Whenever they tell us it’s one issue and we defeat that argument, they move on to something else.”
In response, Ms. Cassella said that “at this point, we will defend our position in court.”
Write to Melanie Grayce West at firstname.lastname@example.org