Church’s lawsuit against Catholic high school could doom a Middle Village charter school

Photo via Facebook/Middle Village Preparatory Charter School


Middle Village Preparatory Charter School (MVP) has 380 students enrolled and hundreds of potential students on a waiting list — along with statewide recognition for its academic achievements. But the school’s days may be numbered.

The Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens is taking legal action to compel the Christ the King High School (CTK) board of trustees to disband MVP, which has been situated on the high school’s campus since its inception in 2013 — simply because it is not part of the Catholic high school.

A lawyer from the diocese alerted administrators of MVP, which has a waiting list of 250 more families, that it should not recruit students for the upcoming school year in a letter dated May 2, because they must vacate the building at the end of this school year. MVP claims that the diocese’s lawyer claimed school administrators could face “fine or imprisonment or both for contempt of court” if they stopped enrolling new students for the new school year.

“Our school is at this very moment pursuing our options in court to see that our rights are protected and our high-achieving school can remain and grow in its current home for years to come,” administrators at MVP told parents in a letter sent out on Thursday, May 11. “We are confident that we will prevail.”

It’s the latest hurdle in an ongoing battle between CTK and the diocese that’s been brewing since November of 2013, when the diocese filed a lawsuit claiming that CTK’s trustees violated the terms of a 1976 agreement that purportedly mandates that the Middle Village campus be strictly used for Christ the King High School functions.

An agreement that led to disagreement

Christ the King High School opened in 1962 as a Diocesan high school, but was on the verge of permanently closing in the mid 1970s due to financial troubles that were exacerbated by a teachers’ strike. A group of the school’s parents, led by Serphin Maltese, fought to keep the institution open. The agreement reached in 1976 allowed Christ the King to form a board of trustees that would manage the school independently from the diocese. Maltese currently serves as chairman of CTK’s board of trustees.

“As long as you operate a Catholic high school, the property’s yours and we want you to operate it as a Catholic high school,” Diocese spokesperson Marty McLaughlin told the Times Newsweekly in a November 2013 phone interview. “As time transpired, as financial problems occurred, some of the schools would call the diocese” and request to lease unused space to other programs in order to generate revenue, he added. (During the 1970s, the diocese made similar agreements at other high schools that were in danger of closing.)

The diocese contends that CTK’s trustees didn’t ask for permission when it decided in recent years to transform unused school space for the creation of an adult education center, a preschool and, most recently, the home of MVP, which educates students in grades six through eight. (In an email sent out on Friday, CTK President Michael Michel noted that the preschool’s operations is not affected by the current situation.)

In some ways, the diocese views MVP as direct competition to several Catholic grammar schools and academies located within close proximity to the Christ the King campus, including St. Margaret and Our Lady of Hope in Middle Village; Notre Dame Catholic Academy of Ridgewood; St. Matthias in Ridgewood; St. Stanislaus in Maspeth; and St. Pancras in Glendale.

The 2013 lawsuit that the diocese filed claimed that the trustees could lease unused portions of the school to generate revenue, provided that it did not compete with or negatively impact other nearby diocesan schools.

Did the sun set on the diocese’s claim? Not so, says court

Since opening in 2013, MVP has become one of the best schools in the state, and in 2016 was recognized by the New York State Education Commissioner as a Reward School for high student performance. As a charter school, it receives state funding for its various educational programs.

CTK’s continuing education program sublets its space to MVP for its academic programs, according to Maltese. But MVP also uses the high school’s auditorium, multi-purpose rooms, gymnasium and other parts of the campus. Maltese maintains that MVP pays rent for all of its use of CTK property, and it has benefited both the school and the diocese.

“This arrangement has been in existence for going on four years, generating funds that benefit our campus as well as previously benefiting the diocese to the extent of over $80,000,” Maltese said in a letter emailed to QNS. “In fact, funds from this arrangement had also been set aside to be given to individual parish schools to defray any effects the charter school may have had on that parish school.”

In responding to the diocese’s 2013 lawsuit, CTK’s trustees contended that the diocese doesn’t have the authority to dictate the use of the CTK campus. The late Tom Ognibene, who served as CTK’s counsel, told the Times Newsweekly in a 2013 interview that a reverter clause in the agreement — which would have reverted ownership of the school back to the diocese for any violation of the agreement — expired in 2006.

Both the diocese and CTK pointed fingers at each other when asked why the clause was allowed to sunset 11 years ago. The diocese said CTK refused to renew it; CTK countered that the diocese made no such effort toward renewal.

“The Diocese of Brooklyn understands that some Catholic high schools need to generate revenue by renting classroom space. There are multiple charter schools utilizing Catholic buildings throughout the diocese,” Diocese of Brooklyn spokesperson Carolyn Erstad said in an email to QNS. “Christ the King is the only Catholic school that operates without the consultation and consent of the diocese. The Diocese of Brooklyn was left with no other option but to initiate a lawsuit.”

The recent New York State Supreme Court ruling that spurred the diocese’s letter demanding that MVP cease its enrollment operations and move off the CTK Campus declared that CTK’s trustees were in “breach of an agreement … which limited the use of the premises to the operation of a Catholic high school,” according to the diocese.

“Christ the King was ordered to discontinue this use of the premises for a charter school, without the permission of the diocese, effective at the end of the academic year,” the diocese further noted, adding that Christ the King “is the only Catholic school that operates a charter school” without consulting the diocese, and without receiving its consent.

Nowhere for MVP to go in September

Should the court order be upheld, according to MVP administrators, the charter school would have no choice but to fold, as there is no viable room in the area where the institution could relocate with less than four months before the new school year begins.

Incoming sixth- and seventh-graders at MVP would instead enroll in September at other local private and public schools within School District 24 — which is constantly considered one of the most overcrowded school districts in the entire country.

While the court has ruled partially in the diocese’s favor, according to the MVP letter to its parents, “all of us on the CTK campus believe a judgement is in error and we will be fighting the diocese on behalf of Middle Village Prep in every way possible.”

“Since the Bishop (Nicholas DiMarzio) and the diocese permit similar charter schools to coexist in Catholic schools, we find the diocese’s position puzzling,” the letter noted. “It’s hard for us to understand why Bishop DiMarzio and the diocese would want to inflict hardship on our school and close us down.”

The letter went on to note that many MVP graduates go on to attend local “Catholic high schools, some on full or partial scholarships.” It added that “half our student body is considered economically at risk and 16% receive special education services.”

Maltese couldn’t help but compare the current crisis over MVP’s future with his fight to save Christ the King high school from closure back more than four decades ago.

“It is sad and ironic that now, May 2017, the diocese has acted in identical fashion and done the same thing to MVP, calling on the court to permit only the seniors to graduate in June and close MVP, leaving all other MVP classes and students (about 250) on their own to plead for admittance to overcrowded, overburdened schools in School District 24,” he wrote. “You would think that in 40 years, they would have benefited from the consequences of that sad, deplorable action, instead of repeating it with a new generation of MVP students and family victims.”

Parents and those interested in the situation are invited to learn more by attending MVP’s board meeting on Wednesday, May 17, at 6:30 p.m. at the Hugh P. Kirwan Performing Arts Center, located on the CTK Campus at 68-02 Metropolitan Avenue. To learn more, email boardoftrustees[@]middlevillageprep.org.

More from Around New York