|Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens, is leasing space to a new charter school.|
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn Sues Christ The King High School in Queens
For more than 30 years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and the nonprofit group running Christ the King High School in Queens have acted as one, managing the twin hurdles of declining enrollments and shrinking revenues with a joint aim of fostering parochial education.
But their relationship turned shrill on Monday when the diocese sued the high school in State Supreme Court in Queens, accusing it of flouting an agreement the two sides struck in 1976, when the financially strained diocese shed the day-to-day operations of its six high schools in Brooklyn and Queens.
And much like the debate over the sharing of public school buildings, the fight comes down to space, money and the growth of charter schools.
At the heart of the dispute, according to diocesan officials, is Christ the King’s refusal to turn over nearly half the revenue it is earning by leasing 50,000 square feet of unused space to a charter school that opened in September, the Middle Village Preparatory Charter School. Since it is free, the diocese argues, it could sap students from Catholic elementary schools, which charge tuition.
“That is what brought this legal case to a head,” said Marty McLaughlin, a spokesman for the diocese. “And the reason is that the charters are in direct competition with the diocesan elementary schools.”
Diocesan officials said two other Catholic high schools among the six spun off in 1976 — Bishop Ford and Nazareth in Brooklyn — also rented space to charter schools, but in an accord with the diocese they put 40 percent of their charter revenue into a trust for needy students attending Catholic elementary schools.
The diocese cited the agreement struck with Christ the King 37 years ago that called for a Catholic high school to be run “in and upon the entire premises,” and in its lawsuit, it wants the school to be declared in breach of the agreement, which could give the diocese power to re-establish control of the property.
In a news release, the diocese said other businesses had also cropped up over the years on Christ the King’s campus of about two acres in Middle Village, Queens, including a school of continuing education and a day care center “run by the daughter of the school’s president.”
“We don’t know what’s going on, on what we perceive to be our own property,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
But Thomas V. Ognibene, a former city councilman who is spokesman for Christ the King High School Inc., the nonprofit that runs the school, said that diocese officials “let their rights lapse,” when they did not reaffirm the 1976 agreement in 2006, as the agreement required, an act Mr. McLaughlin conceded the diocese should have carried out sooner. Mr. Ognibene said the diocese did not balk when the day care center opened in 1993, or when the continuing education center opened eight years later.
Mr. Ognibene rejected any suggestion that insider treatment was given to Janine Michel, the daughter of the school president, Michael Michel, and said she had generated $3.7 million in revenue since she took over the day care center a few years ago. He also said the school had sent checks, from charter school revenue, to the diocese in July, August, September and October, an assertion that Mr. McLaughlin disputed.
Mr. Ognibene said Christ the King was paying tuition to some Catholic grammar schools for seven of their students who had switched to the charter school.
“They want the bishop to have the sole right to determine when we can operate the school,” Mr. Ognibene said. “We are very uncomfortable with giving a diocese that is struggling for financial resources the opportunity to declare unilaterally, tomorrow, that, ‘You are no longer operating, give us back the building,’ when we’ve got 1,000 kids in there.”