St. Paul’s Alexandria VA preschool initiative appears headed for crisis amidst fallout from pandemic

By | July 23, 2020

As Episcopal churches throughout the US struggle to deal with the pandemic, many are seeing reduced income, faltering attendance, and other signs that suggest trouble down the road. But one church, located near this author, may be about to experience big trouble, due to its decision to launch a preschool even as the pandemic was bursting onto the scene.

St. Paul’s Alexandria, which occupies a building designed by Benjamin Latrobe in the ritziest part of the city, the historic old town, began efforts late last year to launch a new, half-day preschool. The move came as a prior community service program with ties to the church came undone.

As part of the initiative, the church hired Chris Byrnes, formerly head of school at Grace Episcopal Alexandria, as part-time interim director for the preschool. The announcement followed Chris’ retirement from Grace and a multi-year stint as a facilities coordinator at Episcopal High School, where Chris allegedly taught a computer lab.

Before we go further, full disclosure: I worked with Chris at Grace Church and am not a fan. The reasons are myriad, and include:

  • A propensity for empire-building.
  • Manipulation, triangulation, and back-room dealing inconsistent with a church environment.
  • Questionable veracity, including multiple incidents in which Chris made changes to the church’s HVAC system without authorization, then pretended not to know anything about the issue.
  • Boundary issues, in which Chris would try to circumvent the vestry in order to get what she wanted, including one situation in which she brought a for-profit into the building for the summer, in express violation of written parish policy.
  • Ongoing conflict with school staff, the church vestry, and others.
  • Lack of transparency into school finances and business operations, including repeatedly failing to provide school board minutes and financial reports as required by law and written parish policy.
  • A what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mind mentality when it came to cost sharing with the parish, culminating in a $6,000 barbecue for Chris’ retirement farewell. The church foolishly agreed to share the cost, paying its half of the total from its management reserve, despite knowing that it had millions of dollars of unfunded capital expenditures coming due in the next few years. All I can say is that any church that can afford a $6,000 barbecue obviously doesn’t need my money, and it doesn’t need yours.

Flash forward to 2020, and Chris arrives at St,. Paul’s on or about February 2020, drawing a budgeted $60,000 salary for part-time work. Great gig if you can get it, especially since this is more than many Episcopal clergy in the area make.

Chris Byrnes

Early on, Chris showed signs that her conduct would be consistent with that of the past. In one instance, for example, she bypassed a church treasurer, going directly to the rector in order to remove salary detail from budget. This was wrong, both because of the inherent triangulation, and due to lack of financial transparency. Non-profits do best when they provide full disclosure, and it is impossible for a vestry to offer meaningful oversight when it cannot see details. Same for her decision to hire an $18,000 a year staffer without so much as consulting with her treasurer; this and Chris’ decision to triangulate by going directly to the rector in order to reduce transparency in financial reporting led to the abrupt and appropriate resignation of a highly qualified volunteer treasurer. Indeed, Chris had been asked by the treasurer to hold off on hiring until there could be further discussion among board members about budget and staffing costs. In an astounding display of childish, manipulative behavior, Chris ignored the request, instead going to the assistant rector to obtain permission. The latter held an impromptu board meeting by conference call, resulting in approval of the hire. No minutes, no notice to stakeholders—and most importantly, no accurate budget numbers available to participants. That begs the question: How could any church leader, acting in the role of a fiduciary, make a well-informed decision.

That of course undercuts the reality that the vestry sets budget, not the rector, and such conduct is highly inappropriate. Indeed, any well-run organization would have fired Chris on the spot, or at least put her on notice that future such conduct could and would result in termination. And the assistant rector, formerly an attorney, should have known better.

Additionally, Chris is hiring, even now. That begs the question why.

Pre-COVID, the church had signed employment contracts with various preschool staff, totaling more than $300,000.. Thus, these are largely fixed costs. There’s also another $100,000 in the budget for variable costs, including snacks and teaching materials, which can be scaled down as needed.

As things stand, the preschool may be looking at a deficit of more than $100,000, or roughly 6 percent of the church’s pledge and plate income as reported for 2018. While this can and will shift due to the unknowns presented by the pandemic, that’s a scary number just now. Moreover, with hiring continuing, it would seem that the deficit likely will increase, not decrease, in coming months.

Nor does it appear that St. Paul’s got any COVID stimulus funds, which has been the near-term solution for many organizations facing such challenges. While Grace Episcopal school got funds, as did nearby St. Rita’s Catholic school, and the diocese’s beloved Shrine Mont summer resort/cathedral, information in Pro Publica’s database does not reflect grants for the diocese, or very many of its constituent Episcopal parishes, for that matter. And it shows nothing for St. Paul’s.

That’s surprising, as diocesan clergy conference calls reflect considerable interest in the topic. Even more troubling is the fact that St. Paul’s seemingly made no effort to obtain funds, an issue on which Chris should have led the charge. This despite the fact that the parish includes a number of heavy hitters, including quite a few from the Belle Haven Country Club, the local hangout for the glitterati.

All of the above implicates another, baseline issue, which is business model. Specifically, is there a need or demand for a half-day preschool in one of the most affluent areas in Northern Virginia?

Many of the children in the immediate area have nannies or in-home care givers., which is a given in an upscale neighborhood such as this. Additionally, the area around St. Paul’s has a relatively low cohort of children, as it is difficult to purchase a home for less than $1 million.

Of course, affording a home in the area may mean that both parents work, and very likely long hours. Thus, to the extent that the preschool might serve parishioners or nearby residents, any meaningful demand likely is for fulltime care.

We can then look to the issue of the less fortunate in the area, many of whom form the invisible underbelly of society. Working in cleaning and other jobs often considered blue-collar, for many there is a pressing need for affordable child care. Yet St. Paul’s preschool is not particularly affordable, with most parents paying $8,700 a year. And being only a half-day program, it is unlikely to meet the needs of persons of limited means. Thus, the preschool appears to target the children of the great and the good at a time when there seems to be little demand.

Then there’s the issue of social distancing. Is it even possible to operate a socially distanced preschool? Not having kids, I don’t know, but my experience with ankle-biters is that they swarm like gnats, spilling out in all directions, oblivious to most external stimuli. So my gut instinct is to be dubious, but others may be better informed. And given the number of helicopter parents in the neighborhood, my bet is that few, if any, area children will be packing off to preschool any time soon.

I’m also puzzled and somewhat troubled by Chris’ path to the preschool. Leaving aside for a moment that issues described above, Chris appears to have bounced around between purported early childhood expertise, facilities management, and school administration. Yet professional school administrators at Grace, Chris’ previous employer, were anything but impressed with what they perceived to be her propensity for brushing off unexpected visitors, her tendency to work with her office door closed, and her seeming lack of genuine interest in others. These factors, they believed, were not conducive to fostering connection, community, or the sense of joy that should be part of any Christian community. And the rampant conflict between Chris and school staff, tensions with the church vestry and volunteers, and others was not helpful.

It’s interesting, too: Some at St. Paul’s are under the impression that Chris taught a computer lab at Episcopal High. That seems improbable, as I am not aware that Chris taught any classes there, and facilities coordinators typically don’t teach. That said, I would welcome any insights that others might offer apropos this issue.

As things stand, the church has committed to a boatload of expenses in conjunction with the preschool. It does not appear, however, to have given much scrutiny to the preschool’s business model. And it appears to be under the impression that the 20K in the church budget, attributable to reimbursement from the preschool and used to balance the budget, will actually materialize. I doubt it will, and you can quote me. Instead, it looks like the church is going to be subsidizing a preschool for the children of the glitterati — hardly reassuring amidst the pandemic.

Even more troubling is the fact that Chris, allegedly an interim, apparently has been asked to join the preschool’s executive committee. This bodes ill, as it suggests that Chris will be around for the long haul. At the same time, it does not appear that St. Paul’s has done its due diligence, for Chris seems poised to engage in the same triangulation, manipulative behavior, and empire building that she has in the past. And there are some troubling questions about Chris’ resume that warrant additional scrutiny and meaningful answers—not the least of which is why, at a time when so many are pigging out at the COVID-19 feeding trough, the preschool has not attempted to secure funds.

The result is that St. Paul’s appears poised for major financial issues and governance challenges. My best advice is that parishioners, vestry members, and staff alike demand accountability, transparency, and integrity at every level as they decide where to go next with the preschool. To do otherwise is to risk a meltdown every bit as bad as the one that happened at Christ Church under its last rector, or the one now under way at Grace Episcopal Alexandria following the departure of its last rector, Bob Malm.

It’s also worth noting that the lack of accountability, transparency, and good governance associated with the preschool is the norm, not the exception, for Episcopal entities. Hundreds of thousands of dollars at play, yet even basic professional standards, like not engaging in triangulation, are not implemented. In short, total amateur hour, and not exactly an incentive to give generously.

One final note: Two days ago I contacted St. Paul’s to ask if it would like to offer a statement in conjunction with this article. While I would imagine that any good news involving the preschool would have engendered a quick response, silence reigns. That, despite the fact that the church’s executive committee met last night, prior to the publication of this piece.

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