NEW YORK.- Greek Orthodox of the New York Metropolitan Area and even some of the board members, of St Basil’s Academy, were caught by surprise, learning from the New York Times (Monday, January 6) that on January 2, 2004, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) denied an application for Saint Basil Academy to obtain a certificate to operate a residential childcare facility in Garrison, New York, ordering them to relocate the children, until January 31, 2004.
The Academy was offering care for its children since its establishment in 1944, as a boarding school. The status of the Academy was change in 1997, when the school has closed and arrangements were made for children to attend classes in the local school district.
According to the New York Time article, “the dispute between the Garrison school district and St. Basil Academy began just before the school year started, when the state education commissioner issued a temporary ruling that the roughly two dozen children who resided at St. Basil could attend Garrison’s public schools free. St. Basil, which had stopped educating children on its campus in 1997, had been sending children to the Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery school district, but was asked to withdraw them for nonpayment of tuition”.
In a statement issued late Friday, St Basil’s Academy Director, fr. Constantinos Sitaras says that, “Saint Basil Academy, with the full support of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, considers these actions unjustified and intends to pursue vigorously the rights of the children in court”. But, although the Academy has 60 days to appeal, the decision gives them until January 31st to relocate the children.
GreekNews talked with father Sitaras, who said that the tragedy of this is that no one is taking into consideration the children. Neither the Garrison school district and certainly nor the New York State Agency.
“The children are living in a safe environment. It’s’been proven, they have stated it , and yet they are saying the children have to leave. Why? They have been taken care of all these years, many of them have been here for eight, nine, ten, eleven years, twelve years. This is the only safe home residence they’ve known in their lives, that’s the tragedy.
We have had made the application for life insurances when we found that we needed to. We did everything, when we were inspected we passed and then all of a sudden because of political reasons and fear of a lawsuit, the Agency for the State denied us the license. It is just unbelievable that they weren’t taken in to consideration these young lives that are so fragile”.
Fr Sitaras acknowledged that calls have been made to the Governor’s office as well as to U.S. Senator Olympia Snow (a former St Basil’s Academy student) and at the same time the legal team was preparing a case to overturn the decision.
At the same time, Fr Constantinos Sitaras said that even the N.Y.S. Office of the Children didn’t know a licence was necessary.
“We found out from the regional office of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services that we needed to be licensed. This is the first time that I knew that we needed to be licensed. In fact, when the director and the assistant director came I took them to a tour of the place, the children were home from school as around this time of a day- and they were very pleased. And they said:
“Father, if we didn’t see the good work being done here we would have shut you down immediately.” They did not cause it is good work being done. They said: “We don’ t know if you need to be licensed.”
So, they contacted their legal offices in Albany, New York, who then sent down and asked for certain materials from us. We forwarded them without hesitation and they made the determination that we needed to be licensed and we proceeded. We fulfilled manuals and policies of procedures, employee applications, backgrounds checks, employee manuals. Whatever you can imagine which we already had, we had produced it in the last 4- 5 years because it is an excellent program”.
Fr Sitaras says that children are safe and sound and growing and flourishing. The personnel at the Academy attends their parent teacher conferences and they make sure that the children receive the appropriate education and clinical services.
“If they need counseling they get it. Whatever they need they receive from Saint Basil Academy because of donations. The church is supporting us. The church at large; the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, people in the Parishes”.
Fr Sitaras blames the Garrison District School Board for creating the issue. Other St Basil’s board members, that preferred to stay anonymous, said the issue it was not monetary. “They just didn’t want these children to attend school in their high class neighborhood”.
Fr Sitaras said that from the local paper’s reports of the School Board meetings, one can see the hostility against St Basil’s.
“At the December 17th meeting, it is reported in the newspaper that at the recommendation of the Superintendent of the Garrison School Board this board approved the expenditure of hiring an other, an additional law firm to sue the New York State Office of Children and Family Services concerning St. Basil Academy. Two weeks later, we get this definitive statement of denial for the license”
National Philoptochos holds the deed for the Academy and offers every year more than 300.000 dollars. Yesterday, in every Greek Orthodox Church in America, the offerings for the “vasilopita” will be given to Saint Basil. Few years ago, some people in the executive of the Archdiocese have proposed a sale of all, or part of the very expensive grounds of Saint Basil, but these plans were dismissed. Some people fear that they are resurfacing again, although Archdiocese promises to keep St Basil. As it is stated on the Academy’s web page, “Saint Basil Academy always has been and will continue to be a safe haven for Orthodox children in need…. There are plans for a new Retreat and Conference Center, which will be a spiritual haven for all Orthodox Christians, young and old.”