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  • Writer's pictureNathan Bellott

The Closing of Turtle Bay Music School Part 2: “Numbers & Questions”

[See “The Closing of Turtle Bay Music School Part 1: Waking Up From A Dream Come True”]

I’ve been biting my tongue on whether or not it’s worth it for me to talk further about the closing of Turtle Bay Music School. You may remember I posted a long essay about my experience there, what it has meant to me, my students and the NYC community for nearly 95 years. Upon reading this article from the Gothamist, it’s clear that the Board of Directors’ plan to navigate the closing with a positive PR spin is working, because this article COMPLETELY misses the mark on why TBMS is closing.

The op-ed uses the closing as a soap box to address other points about access and wealth that are not directly related to the possibly criminal mismanagement of TBMS. So here I am to tell you some things that I just can’t chalk up to incompetence and questions I can’t find answers to. I’ll preface the following by saying I didn’t know any of the numbers regarding building sales, mortgages until I did a lot of research using the NYC ACRIS portal.

In 2017 the TBMS community was made aware of the Board’s plan to relocate the school, citing lack of space to expand programming, ADA compliance issues, and rising costs of upkeep on a very old building. This made literally no sense to any of the teachers, staff, faculty or student body. The school had been in that location since the late 1930’s. Sure it had some problems, like any old structure, but it was our home and we loved it and didn’t see those reasons as justifiable for selling and moving. It was a neighborhood and citywide fixture. The school owned the property, why not renovate? Space had not been an issue. Keep this in the back of your mind- if you were a non-profit organization in Manhattan that happened to own a sizable property, especially if you were in financial stress, why on earth would you sell it?

Another aspect the Board stated as a priority was to open a music-centered Pre-School program at the new location within a year. This also made no sense, as TBMS already offered a large amount of early childhood courses and classes that were very successful. With all the red tape and startup costs for licensing, hiring, marketing that it would take to start a preschool in NYC, why add that to the stress of a relocation, sale of a building, buying a new space, rebranding, etc?

The speed at which the Board initiated this process was extremely fast, immediately showing off the building to groups of buyers, investors, etc. Meanwhile I started to notice admin and staff leaving. First the executive director, then the business manager, then the assistant director, then the building operations manager, etc. Seemed weird, but understandable given such a dramatic and sudden shift in outlook for the school. At the time of this writing, here are all the people who have jumped ship from TBMS: The Executive Director, Assistant Director, Business Manager, Development Director, Programming Assistant, Operations Manager, Marketing Director, as well as scores of faculty and staff.

I’ll tell you that the Board of Directors is made up of a small group 6 or 7 individuals who have had major success in both the NYC real estate market as well as finance. As I mentioned, its hard for me to chalk this up to incompetent management… The building was sold in late 2017 for 11 million dollars (pic attached). That was the first sign that something strange was going on. I’m no real estate expert, but 11 million for the TBMS building seemed like a gross undersell. If you saw it, the property was originally two adjacent townhouses that over the years and a renovation were converted into one large building. So the square footage of two townhouses on 52nd street in Manhattan plus the air rights…a big undersell.

Meanwhile in early 2018 the Board announced it had found and purchased a new location in the base of the Corinthian Condominiums, a massive building on 38th street between 1st and 2nd avenue- not exactly a bustling hub of activity. That didn’t make sense, moving to a completely new neighborhood but keeping the same branding. The school lost a lot of students when it moved, I personally lost a few. More on that later. The space they purchase was completely empty and had been vacant for years. They had to hire an architect and contractor to build a COMPLETELY NEW SCHOOL FROM SCRATCH. Ok, so I thought maybe they can use that 11 million dollars buy up the space, build it out and be safe there until they could get a foothold in a new market. There’s one simple problem, they bought the space EMPTY for 14.1 million dollars (pic attached.) So even math-challenged people like me are scratching their heads. So you’re already in the hole 3.1 million and you have to build out a completely new school, move all the pianos and equipment, files, computers, chairs, tables, etc from the old place.

I’m wondering what exactly they did with the 11 million dollars from the building sale because the mortgage with Flushing Bank is only for just over 6 million dollars on the new place (pic attached.) These are just some of the things that don’t add up. All of these records are public and I spent the first few weeks after the closure announcement digging through them, trying to connect the dots. Unfortunately I don’t know a lot about this business, but any alleged wrongdoer on the Board would be an expert in real estate and finance. I have tried to connect to buyers of 244 E. 52nd St. with anybody on the board and I can’t find any obvious connection. That is the side of the equation where there is the possibility of most profiting. I’d like to know why on the most recent mortgage extension of 1.5 million dollars for TBMS in June 2019, our loan guarantor is an extremely corrupt businessman named Joel Schreiber (of WeWork fame.)

In May of 2019, the faculty and staff were made aware that TBMS was under “financial stress” and would be taking appropriate measures including a hiring freeze, pay freeze, cutting the complete failure of a preschool idea, firing an completely incompetent and useless “Director of Education” and limiting operating hours. They would not take on a new class in the Saturday Music Program. We did not think this was existential in nature, but it was weird, no one had let on that the school was doing poorly.

If it sounds like most of this process was done behind closed doors and in a shroud of secrecy, that’s because it was! The TBMS community was vocally opposed to all of this bullshit from the beginning, no one listened to us. A colleague and I predicted this over two years ago as a cynical joke, and we slowly saw our cynicism validated. I have spent hours and hours combing the public records looking for answers. I got exhausted from it all, I don’t know what to do at this point.

Since I learned about the closing, I have been researching the school’s institutional history from within. TBMS was extremely strong for many years. At one point the school had a robust board of directors (over 20 members), an advisory board, and an honorary board as well as parent advisory committees and many other committees. It seems that the institutional problems started long before my tenure there, but I noticed that beginning in the mid to late 2000s the board of directors started to thin and by now there are only a few people involved making all the important decisions. In trying to research board members I found that their bios had been taken off the TBMS website even though a few years ago I remember them being on the web. If you want to know who has been in charge they are President Jeffrey Schlosser, Edwin Sirlin, Nancy Grebey, David Bondy, Mary Neumann, Taylor Nicholls, and Blair Talcott. Jeff Schlosser has his name all over all the financial documents so naturally I was looking for connections with him. I have met and known some of the other members (some are newer than the moving plans) and they are nice people but something doesn’t smell right with all this. What do you think?

In summary, here are my questions:

-Why did TBMS decide suddenly to sell its building and relocate in such a hot market if it was indeed going through financial problems?

-Why did TBMS sell it’s property for such a low sum?

-Why did it buy it’s new property for a much higher sum than it could afford?

-Why are the board trying to spin the closing as a result of “shifting cultural priorities” ?

-Why is Joel Schreiber a loan guarantor for TBMS?

-Why has the Board been pretending to try to find a savior to keep the school open even though they clearly have no plans to do so?

-What is the board going to do with TBMS’ assets after closing? Bankruptcy? Liquidation?

-Will Turtle Bay Music School INC. cease to exist after 1.31.2020 the announced closing date?

-If they are shutting down the corporation, what will be the purpose of continuing the non-profit TBMS INC. if there is no school?

If there is indeed no criminal or dubious goings-on here, than the culprit of TBMS’ demise was complete and utter mismanagement and incompetence. It just bothers me to see the board of director’s announcement (attached) that they are closing the school saying that society’s shifting priorities are the culprit: ‘Confronting reality, changing times in the cultural and educational landscape, and society’s shifting priorities have made the TBMS business model no longer sustainable.” I’d argue buying an empty space in a dead neighborhood for more than you have isn’t sustainable. I’d say that all of the above research shows that the Board’s vision of the school wasn’t sustainable because of their own short sightedness. This wasn’t a necessary outcome, it was avoidable.

Turtle Bay Music School 1925-2020

Turtle Bay Music School 244 E. 52nd St. $11 million?

deed from sale of 52nd st.

deed from new location

330 E. 38th for new location

additional $1.5 million mortgage June 2019

Notorious slumlord Joel Schreiber guarantees above $1.5 million mortgage

letter from the BOT announcing the school’s closure

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