Thursday, December 7, 2023

St. Joseph’s Faces Lawsuit Over Mask Policy and Boca Resumes Goal-setting

If you thought that private schools had avoided the contentious issue of mask mandates, you thought wrong.

According to a lawsuit, St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Boynton Beach wants to evict St. Joseph’s Episcopal School from church property. School parents and the school’s primary donor allege that the move is retaliation for a mask-optional policy with which the church disagrees.

The church occupies five acres on South Seacrest Boulevard just north of the Delray Beach city line. The school, which runs from Pre-K through eighth grade, occupies 10 acres east of the church. According to the lawsuit, 165 students are enrolled this year and 175 for next year. Roughly half come from Delray Beach and half from Boynton Beach.

Last month, the church sent notice that it would not renew the school’s lease for another five years. That lease expires in November, in the middle of the school calendar. Steve Mackey, who has two children at St. Joseph’s, told me, “Parents don’t even know if there’s going to be a school year next year.”

The school opened in 1958, just after the church’s founding. The lawsuit alleges that there had been a “symbiotic relationship” between the two until the pandemic. Like all schools, St. Joseph’s went virtual for the three months after the pandemic hit in March 2020. For the 2020-21 school year, the school required masks.

For this year, though, the school set what the lawsuit calls “a well thought out, researched and parent-driven mask-optional policy.” That policy led to “extreme animosity” from church leaders and “hurtful conservations” directed at William C. Swaney, the school’s board chairman.

Swaney lives in the Village of Golf. He is a former CEO of Perrigo, which makes over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Swaney, the lawsuit said, has donated $6 million to the school and $10 million to the church. Those “hurtful conversations,” the lawsuit says, implied that Swaney “did not value the lives of the students.”

The lawsuit calls Swaney “a truly iconic figure” and names him as a plaintiff with the school. It seeks damages of more than $5 million and asks a court to stop the church from cancelling the lease. When Swaney donated 50,000 shares of Perrigo stock to the church, the lawsuit claims, church officials agreed that they would never displace the school.

The church has not filed a response to the lawsuit. The school’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment. On its website, St. Joseph’s said the church and the school had agreed last month to “select a third-party mediator” for meetings and “arrive at terms mutually agreeable to both parties.”

According to the church, that mediation had been set for May 17. On May 16, the church said, “the school leadership team” cancelled the mediation.

“We recognize,” the church said, “that the lease ending in mid-year is not ideal for the families. We were prepared, through third-party mediation, to offer an extension to provide some relief.” Officials criticized “harassment and false accusations” against the church, denying rumors that it wants to evict the school so it can sell the land.

Gov. DeSantis and the Legislature denied $200 million in performance bonus money to school districts such as Palm Beach County that require masks last fall. St. Joseph’s alleges that it is being punished for the opposite policy.

Boca to resume goal-setting meetings

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Boca Raton will hold its goal-setting meetings in the city complex at 6500 North Congress Avenue. These sessions, which include top administrators and city council members, took place every year until the pandemic.

Typically, participants review progress—or lack of it—on previous priorities and set new ones. City Manager Leif Ahnell regularly cautions council members about overloading the staff. Yet the list of priorities always grows.

Andy Thomson, who will resign this fall because he’s running for the Florida House, has a modest agenda with “no major changes.” His priority is ensuring the city’s continued financial stability, given staff projections of increasing costs and decreasing revenue. “Residents expect a certain level of service,” Thomson said, “and we need to keep giving it.”

Monica Mayotte is more ambitious. She wants the city to change a “broken” development approval process. “It takes too long to get to yes and too long to get to no.”

Mayotte said she would wait until next week to list specific proposals. But she has heard from enough “developers and attorneys” to believe that there’s a problem. “We may miss out” on some pandemic-migration business recruitment, Mayotte said, “if the process doesn’t get faster.”

Yvette Drucker is even more ambitious.

Citing her service on the Transportation Planning Agency, Drucker wants Boca Raton to focus more on “mobility.” She acknowledges the new effort to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly, but Drucker wants to make it easier to walk and cycle in all parts of the city.

On a related note, Drucker wants to restart discussion of a city “campus”—with a new City Hall—near the Brightline station. Any discussion would include all the other municipal facilities in that area.

Finally, Drucker wants the council to discuss affordable housing. Cities on their own would seem to have limited ability to ease this crisis, but Drucker said she hears about the problem constantly at community meetings.

Both sessions will run from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Members of the public are welcome, but public comment will be allowed only from 9:15 a.m.-9:45 a.m. each day.

Thomson said these meetings may not be the right setting to discussion succession planning, but it might come up. City Manager Leif Ahnell, who has had the job for 23 years, must retire no later than 2024. Deputy City Manager Mike Woika is retiring this summer and the other deputy, George Brown, also is near retirement age.

I’m told that the city is in the last stages of filling Woika’s spot. Depending on the hire, that person could have the inside track to succeeding Ahnell.

Florida Legislature passes building inspection bill

florida state capitol
Florida State Capitol, photo courtesy of Adobe Stock.

As of deadline for this post, the Legislature was debating and passing a bill to require safety inspections of older buildings. Boca Raton passed its own law last year, after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside.

If Gov. DeSantis signs the bill, as he certainly will, the law could replace or complement what Boca Raton did. It also would set rules for Delray Beach, which has not passed an ordinance. Legislators added it to this week’s special session agenda at the last minute. I’ll have more next week.

Delray takes steps to reopen Cornell

old school square
Cornell Art Museum in Old School Square; photo courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

Delray Beach made small progress last week toward reopening the Cornell Museum.

A majority of city commissioners wants to hold a public meeting—known as a charrette—to discuss who would operate the museum, which is part of Old School Square. That meeting could happen next month.

Longer term, there was less agreement. Someone suggested that Grace Gdaniec, who runs Arts Warehouse, could step in. But Commissioner Adam Frankel wondered if that idea came out of “idle chatter” during the city’s pro tennis tournament. The community redevelopment agency oversees Arts Warehouse.

Commissioner Shirley Johnson said she would “like to see all four spaces” at Old School Square activated. In addition to the Cornell, those are Crest Theater, the Fieldhouse and the Pavilion. But the city is scrambling because Johnson, Juli Casale and Mayor Shelly Petrolia voted last August to evict Old School Square for the Arts, which had managed the entire complex for 32 years.

Pati McGuire is an Old School Square for the Arts board member. She proposed that the city put the group back in charge of the Cornell. Old School Square for the Arts is suing the city over the termination. McGuire got no takers on her offer.

Missed the last City Watch?

Visit our City Watch page and also sign up for our City Watch e-newsletter, where you’ll get the latest column delivered directly to your inbox.


Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

Related Articles

Latest Articles