A parent of an Oldfields School student filed suit Monday to temporarily halt the sale of the Baltimore County institution’s property while alumnae, parents and supporters develop a plan to keep the 156-year-old girls’ boarding school open.
The sale of the school’s 140 acres in Sparks Glencoe was believed to be imminent, said Doug Gansler, an attorney representing the parent. A judge is expected to hold a hearing in the next several days and decide whether to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the board from selling the land to Garrison Forest School, another private girls’ school near Owings Mills.
“The goal here is to put a pause on the irreversible sale of the land at Oldfields to give the alumnae and the Oldfields community as a whole time to save the school and teach girls for the next 150 years,” Gansler said.
Lisa Geyer of North Carolina accuses school leaders of taking actions that intentionally moved the private girls’ school toward closure, which violates the duties of the board of trustees, according to the lawsuit.
In April, the school for grades eight through 12 announced it was closing at the end of this academic year and selling off the property. Oldfields leadership said it was working on an agreement with Garrison Forest that would allow its students to transfer there for next school year.
A message the school posted on its Facebook page in April said that it was a regrettable decision but that the financial challenges of operating a small all-girls school had made it difficult to continue. The school has about 100 students, about three-quarters of whom board at the school.
The lawsuit claims school leaders are purposely tanking enrollment, avoiding fundraising opportunities and draining the endowment so the school has no choice but to close. Not only would its closure end a legacy, the suit said, but it would inconvenience the entire school community, including Geyer’s 16-year-old daughter.
“If the Board’s wrongs were to result in the closing of the school, not only would current and future students suffer significant harm, but the wider community, including alumnae and neighbors of the school, would suffer from having the 150-plus years of the school’s legacy destroyed,” the lawsuit stated.
Oldfields’ interim head of school, Nancy Palmer, said in a statement that “the school does not comment on pending litigation.”
The lawsuit, filed Monday, called the decision to close “senseless and capricious.” It claimed the timing of the closure announcement came after Oldfields’ fall application deadline and the deadlines for other institutions like it.
Geyer invested thousands of dollars for her daughter’s education at Oldfields, according to the lawsuit. She picked it for its small class sizes and horseback riding program. The suit stated Geyer was told in February the school would offer classes in the fall semester and she had submitted paperwork committing her daughter to the next semester.
Geyer claimed in the lawsuit Garrison Forest didn’t have the attributes that attracted her to Oldfields and Garrison Forest’s horseback riding program was more expensive. The lawsuit also stated the decision was made without consultation with stakeholders.
The lawsuit represents one of several actions the school’s supporters are taking to try to prevent the school from being permanently closed, according to Margaret Cooter, a 1979 graduate of Oldfields. The first step, she said, would be blocking the sale.
”If they are successful in selling off the assets, there’s not much we can do,” Cooter said.
A Facebook page with 900 members has helped bolster efforts to save the school.
But even if the lawsuit is successful and advocates can come up with the money to keep it going, it’s unlikely students would attend this fall. She said one tentative plan calls for keeping the riding program going through the fall and then opening for the second semester of next school year.
Millions of dollars have been pledged by alumnae and parents to keep the school open, but until an organization is formed to take in donations, it will be unclear exactly how much has been raised, Cooter said.
Cooter, who was the third generation of her family to attend the school, said it provides a unique education for girls who she believes are more likely to become successful leaders in their fields if they grow up in a small, close-knit community. The riding program, she said, is one of the best in the country.
Gansler said that because of the lack of transparency of the current board and the interim head of the school, “it is unclear where they are in the process of the sale of the property.” The advocates had heard the sale was to take place last week, but they do not believe it went through.
The lawsuit stated the plan to close appeared to have been set in motion more than a year ago and kept secret from families and teachers. According to court documents, the board failed to address low enrollment and refused offered assistance to address it. The percentage of scholarship recipients were increased, the lawsuit claimed, without an effort to offset the costs.
“The board has also turned a blind eye while individuals without adequate experience were put in charge of the enrollment programs,” the lawsuit stated. “The board also structured the school’s finances to prioritize debt repayment while drawing down the endowment, all to create a more advantageous position for eventual sale.”
The lawsuit also stated school leaders said, without explanation, they would not consider any proposal from alumnae unless $20 million had been raised by May 30.