The Passion of St. Bernard's

Parents, alumni and donors at a private Manhattan boys’ school are in an uproar over the planned departure of the beloved longtime headmaster

27 Feb 2020 | 10:36

It was a fleeting moment the “Old Boys” will never forget.

At least 200 all-male alumni of St. Bernard’s School on the Upper East Side descended on East 98th Street on Jan. 16 for a joyous event known as the Old Boys Dinner.

From all over the country and all over the world, they come to Carnegie Hill on the third Thursday of every January to exult in a tradition dating to 1916 – and featuring a healthy dose of wine, liquor and camaraderie.

But before the bonding, networking and singing of the “Old Boys’ Song” got underway that evening, the former classmates – as young as 21, as old as 90 – would hear from Stuart H. Johnson III, the headmaster they all seemed to revere.

His very first words brought a gasp and nervous laughter, followed by a loud ovation: “It’s a great opportunity to be able to preside at your own funeral,” Johnson said, according to separate accounts from three Old Boys in attendance.

“Graceful gallows humor,” is how one witness described the episode in the school’s first-floor auditorium. “Funereal words spoken in funereal times,” another said. “A cri de coeur, a cry from the heart, to everybody in that room,” a third offered. All three requested anonymity.

If the Old Boys’ English usage seems particularly eloquent, it’s because St. Bernard’s has taught them very well indeed.

And it may sound corny, but as they belted out their eponymous song – “Sing we a song of our first Alma Mater, home of our tenderest triumphs and fears; little the Earth has to offer hereafter, can equal the hopes of those earliest years” – there were few dry eyes left in the place.

Forty Years at the Blackboard

A sea change is coming to St. Bernard’s, an elite, private school that currently enrolls 365 boys, from kindergarten through ninth grade, who stand out in their navy blue blazers, Oxford shirts and khaki trousers.

Founded in 1904, the school boasts an enviable record of placing its graduates in top private day and boarding schools. Since 1985, with Johnson at the helm, the school’s character, prestige, and pedagogical excellence has been enhanced, while its diversity has been boosted – students hail from 52 countries, Armenia to Vietnam, and speak 24 languages. They also come from zip codes in Harlem and East Harlem, as well as the Upper East and West Sides.

Now, there are fears in the St. Bernard’s community that those gains could be at risk, and that the school’s character could be jeopardized, according to Straus News interviews with parents, donors and Old Boys, and a review of a trove of emails between parents, alumni and school officials.

At issue is the seemingly abrupt announcement before last Christmas that the 65-year-old headmaster would be stepping down at the end of the 2021 academic year after 40 years at the school.

As word began to circulate, Johnson on Dec. 19 penned a somewhat elliptical letter to the “boys, Old Boys, colleagues, families, trustees and friends of St. Bernard's, past and present:”

“The 2020-2021 school year will be my last at this magical place,” he wrote. “After 40 years here, I’d like to try something different. (Suggestions welcome.)”

More than two months later, the circumstances behind his departure remain shrouded in mystery. Does he want to leave or was he pushed out? No clear explanation has yet been offered.

“This beloved school is at a point in its history when planning for the future and leadership succession is necessary to ensure that future generations will continue to receive the quality education that is the hallmark of our school,” said board president Craig Huff in a statement.

But constituents say the transition was poorly handled by the school’s four-member executive committee and 24-member board of trustees. A loss of confidence in board leadership by parents and some Old Boys has fueled calls for resignations. More than $500,000 in pledges has already been revoked, according to a letter from parent and donor Scott Bessent. And a petition demanding Johnson stay on has garnered hundreds of signatures.

Meanwhile, tensions, bitterness, sharp divisions, even ungentlemanly name-calling, have been rending the school since Christmas. Though Johnson’s exit is still 16 months away, the pending vacuum has already proved toxic in the eyes of parents and alumni, the email correspondence and interviews show.

Reading, Writing and Backbiting

“As an Old Boy, I have been involved with St. Bernard’s for more than 60 years,” wrote James S. Olson, a graduate of the Class of 1961 and himself the parent of two Old Boys, in a Feb. 13 letter.

But in all that time, Olson said, “I have never experienced St. Bernard’s as convulsed in anger, accusations, recriminations, and rancor as at present.”

Even Johnson, who stressed the need to restore calm, alluded to past divisions at St. Bernard’s in the early 1980s, and lamented the return of ill will in a Feb. 4 letter to the school community:

“One colleague said he had felt more tension in the last four days than in the previous 25 years. That is not good for learning, not good for teaching, and not good for anyone here,” Johnson added.

St. Bernard’s should be a school to which “parents are eager to send their sons, where boys are proud to be, and where teachers are delighted to work with them,” he wrote. “Continued intransigence and rancor on all sides will wreck it, and us. This is no example to set for young boys.”

Johnson didn’t return emails from Straus News or directly address the issue of his departure, but his office forwarded three letters he sent the community in December, January and February reflecting his thoughts on the matter.

“Some of you have asked whether I would consider staying at St. Bernard’s after the 2020-2021 school year,” he wrote on Jan. 16 in a “Dear Friends” letter.

“This is very flattering, and it is also deeply touching,” Johnson went on. “My family and I have discussed this possibility. We have decided that it would not be right for us.”

Due to the absence of clarity and details over the headmaster’s exit, as well as the murky manner in which it was communicated, it is by no means certain that was ever an option.

Confidentiality and a "Finite Timeline"

“All boards must rely on confidentiality of discussions and deliberations to address sensitive issues freely and candidly,” Huff wrote in a letter to the community on Jan. 22. It was provided to Straus News as part of the school’s response.

Huff said that in May 2019, as part of the succession planning, “Stuart and I discussed, reflecting input from a significant number of trustees, that it was now appropriate to set a finite timeline for succession, rather than maintain the usual open-ended arrangement we have had in the past.”

Johnson asked, and Huff agreed, that talks about the transition be held only with the smaller executive committee, not the larger board. It was agreed he’d stay on as headmaster until the end of the 2021 academic year to foster a smooth transition and help identify his successor, Huff wrote. The full board voted its approval in December.

With arrangements finalized, Johnson’s departure could have been disclosed in November, but the headmaster didn't want to overshadow a December Christmas caroling event. Other St. Bernard’s officials argue it’s wrong to call the exit unexpected or abrupt because the board respected the headmaster's timetable for going public.

In any event, Huff said Johnson would play an “important role” in the search for his successor, and that a newly impaneled search committee would be co-chaired by two Old Boys.

The Wolf on East 98th Street

But both the exit and the search process quickly drew fire.

“This board of directors has acted in bad faith and deceptively, and allowing them to form a search committee is like entrusting the new lamb to the wolves,” wrote Andrew Solomon, a best-selling author and former PEN America board president who is the parent of a St. Bernard’s student.

As a trustee of both the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he's got plenty of experience on nonprofit boards, and he drew on it for his Feb. 2 letter:

“When it comes time for a change in hands-on leadership, the usual protocol is to build consensus among stakeholder groups by talking openly about what needs to happen, and why it can’t happen under the current administration,” Solomon wrote.

“The board of St. Bernard’s chose to comport itself otherwise, which has resulted in as pronounced a schism between board and community as I’ve ever encountered,” he said.

“The quality of a school rests on its fundamental character, and Stuart Johnson has formed the character of St. Bernard’s,” Solomon added.

What should happen next? For one Old Boy, the answer is simple: After a “board miscarriage of this magnitude,” the president and any board members involved in precipitating this crisis must resign, Olson wrote.

Meanwhile, without hard facts to guide them, scores of St. Bernard’s parents, at informal coffee klatches convened with board members to discuss Johnson’s departure, have been referring to it as a “de facto dismissal,” a “so-called resignation,” and an “undisclosed termination.”

And they’ve warned of financial consequences to the school:

“My spouse and I were among the top 10 givers to St. Bernard’s last year,” wrote Scott Bessent, the parent of a student and former chief investment officer for George Soros, who now runs his own giant hedge fund, Key Square Capital Management.

In a Jan. 16 letter, Bessent said he was “sickened” that any portion of his family’s gift could have been spent on legal representation for the board. “As such, we have cancelled this year’s pledge ... and would encourage all other donors to do the same,” he wrote.

Gifts in excess of tuition should be withheld and fundraising activities and events should be halted, Bessent argued. And he noted that “more than $500,000 of pledges” had already been revoked as of mid-January.

At the center of the storm, the headmaster continues to take the high road – and to urge calm.

In concluding his Feb. 4 letter, Johnson wrote, “I’ve spent most of my adult life here, in immense satisfaction, happiness, and gratitude for many friends, young and old. Nothing is more important than to see it restored to good spirits again, in the proper hands for the next generation.

“Please do your part.”

invreporter@strausnews.com

“The quality of a school rests on its fundamental character, and Stuart Johnson has formed the character of St. Bernard’s.” Andrew Solomon