The 73-year-old American Boychoir School, the internationally known music boarding school on Mapleton Road, is declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is asking donors for $350,000 to keep the doors open for the rest of the year. The school is also ending the school year early, on the weekend of May 16 and 17.
In a letter to subscribers sent out Friday, April 10, and signed by board chairman Rob D’Avanzo, the financially struggling school said it was in danger of closing and canceling its annual concert. “In the past several days, an internal review of the school’s finances has revealed to the board that the school’s true financial position at this point in the year is considerably worse than was previously understood,” the letter said. “As a consequence, the board has been compelled to consider several drastic alternatives, including closing the school immediately and ceasing operations.”
Ironically, the school recently received a boost of free publicity. On April 3 the movie “Boychoir” saw a limited theatrical release in New York. The movie stars Dustin Hoffman as a choirmaster at the school who mentors a gifted but rebellious orphan. Eddie Izard, Kathy Bates, and Debra Winger also appear in the movie. Most of the music for the film, including a number by Josh Groban, was recorded in the Boychoir School chapel with actual Boychoir members.
The letter asked donors to supply money to keep the school open and said board members had given personal donations totaling $31,000, and that the school would need $3 million to emerge from bankruptcy. The planned spring tour of Texas and the Southeast would go on with or without new donations, the letter said. In a follow-up letter sent April 13, D’Avanzo said the school had raised gifts and pledges totaling $82,400, about a quarter of the money needed, and that it needed immediate, large donations rather than pledges to keep the doors open.
“We really need to skip pledging and move directly to donation,” he wrote. “There are numerous ways to give — PayPal, cash, check, credit card — whatever works best for you.”
The American Boychoir School and its choir were founded in 1937 in Columbus, Ohio, and moved in 1950 to the 18-acre Albemarle mansion on Lambert Drive in Princeton where it stayed until 2013, when it moved to the 47-acre former St. Joseph’s Seminary on Mapleton Road. The school has about 50 students. It charges $24,700 a year tuition, plus $7,250 room and board for its upper school students in the sixth to eighth grade, and slightly less to its fourth and fifth-grade lower school students.
The Boychoir itself is a touring group that travels the world and regularly performs with such institutions as the New York Symphony, the Boston Symphony, and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. The choir also is frequently broadcast on TV and radio, and produces commercial recordings. The school accepts students based on merit and has provided scholarships to students who are not able to pay their own way.
Joseph Grillo, a Ewing resident whose son graduated from the Boychoir School last year, said it provided an excellent musical education. “Musically it was incredibly amazing,” he said. “The experience was unlike anything in the world. It was fabulous and I can’t say enough about how great it was.”
D’Avanzo’s letter had little to say about how the school became embroiled in such a dire financial predicament. Neither D’Avanzo, nor school president Kerry Heimann returned calls from U.S. 1 asking for comment.
The school’s 2013 tax forms, the most recent available, reported it had assets of around $8 million that year, but used its endowment fund for operations, intending to repay it later. It reported earning about $1.5 million from tuition and concert tickets that year, receiving donations of $2.6 million, and netting $6 million from the sale of its Princeton campus. Most of its assets, about $6.5 million, were in the form of a receivable loan, with less than $1 million in cash on hand.
With little hard information, parents and community members were left to speculate on the causes of the school’s troubles.
“As great as the music is, they just have major challenges financially and administratively,” Grillo said. For the past three years, the school has struggled to meet its budget, Grillo said, and there was talk of shutting down in 2014, averted with a major fundraiser. Grillo noted the school’s staff was stretched so thin they were unable to capitalize on the Boychoir movie by holding a fundraiser or a local showing to take advantage of the publicity.
Other parents, commenting on news articles, mentioned the school’s history of having to pay claims to sex abuse lawsuits from decades ago.
In 2002, a dozen students told a New York Times reporter they had been abused by staff and other students from the 1970s through the 1990s, generating at least five lawsuits. The school paid more than $850,000 to settle with one victim to avoid more lawsuits. The school’s website now shows visitors a detailed abuse protection policy. However, the school has been dogged by abuse allegations that continued into the 21st century. In February, 2014, former Boychoir School dean Thomas Curran was arrested and accused of abusing an 11-year-old West Windsor boy in 2013, after he was no longer working at the school.
The board of the Boychoir school has ties to the Route 1 business community. D’Avanzo, a partner at Accenture, a global management consulting firm, is a co-founder of Tigerlabs, the Nassau Street shared workspace and startup incubator, as is fellow Boychoir board member Bert Navarrete.
But the Boychoir has been plagued by high turnover of its leadership, with five different presidents taking the helm since 2010. In July the school chose its current president, Kerry Heimann, who was previously assistant music director for 10 years. He replaced Dean Orton, who took charge in 2011. Orton left after about a year to return to his former job as COO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting in January, 2013. Orton, reached by phone, said he did not want to be interviewed about his time at the school. D’Avanzo acted as president in between Orton and Heimann. Grillo said D’Avanzo took the job unpaid. Before Orton, in 2011, Karl Held replaced Charles Bickford as president and CEO.
The Boychoir School has had structural changes as well. In 2011 the Boychoir joined with the French American School of Princeton and the Wilberforce School to form the Princeton Center for Arts & Education and share the St. Joseph Seminary campus. The move came with costly renovations to bring the campus up to code. In 2013 the PCAE reported being in debt $8.3 million, with its campus being worth about $5 million. The Wilberforce School, a Christian academy, has since moved to a location on Clarksville Road.
Grillo, who has donated to both recent campaigns to save the school, said he hopes the community, or a wealthy benefactor, can step in to prevent its closure. “It’s just sad to me as a parent to see this institution that’s been just a shining light for all America go under. I would strongly urge people to see if they can give a donation, or if they know somebody who can, to try to save this institution. It’s just so very special.”
American Boychoir School, 75 Mapleton Road, Princeton 08540; 609-924-5858; fax, 609-924-5812. Kerry Heimann, president. www.americanboychoir.org.