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Darrow School in Columbia County could close due to aging buildings, lack of tuition

Darrow School in Columbia County could close due to aging buildings, lack of tuition

The Darrow School, nestled in the picturesque landscape of New Lebanon, Columbia County, is facing an uncertain future. A recent announcement by Head of School Andy Vadnais has sent shockwaves through the community, hinting at the looming possibility of closure due to severe financial challenges. The school, known for its distinguished alumni and historic significance, stands at a critical crossroads, grappling with a financial crisis that threatens its existence.

Vadnais’ candid letter to parents highlighted the school’s precarious financial state, citing a significant gap in tuition and revenue, compounded by a loss of international students. His words painted a stark reality, indicating that without immediate remedial action, Darrow’s financial viability might not extend beyond the current academic year.

A longstanding institution boasting alumni like actor Christopher Lloyd and astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, Darrow has navigated financial hardships in the past. However, the current predicament appears graver than previous challenges. Board of Trustees chair Alexa Clay Seip acknowledged the school’s history of overcoming financial hurdles but underscored the severity of the present situation.

The financial strain stems from multiple factors, as Vadnais outlined. A notable increase in families requiring discounted tuition post-COVID-19, now standing at 43 percent, has exacerbated the financial shortfall. This, combined with a tuition that only covers 65 percent of operational costs, leaves a staggering annual deficit of up to $2 million. Vadnais attributed this struggle to shifting economic circumstances, citing a decline in families capable of meeting private school tuition fees.

The dwindling support from alumni, labeled as “donor fatigue,” along with a decline in international student enrollment, has further strained the school’s finances. Complicating matters, Darrow’s historic campus, situated on the original grounds of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Society, demands significant restoration investments estimated at around $25 million. Buildings lacking essential safety features like sprinkler systems and ADA compliance pose a critical challenge, adding to the financial burden.

In response to this urgent need, concerned alumni like Peter Cholakis initiated a fundraising campaign, recognizing the essence of preserving the school’s historical legacy while addressing safety concerns. However, despite such efforts, the institution finds itself grappling with an underfunded operating budget and a pressing need for immediate financial support.

The looming board meeting in January holds the key to Darrow’s fate. Discussions will revolve around potential cost-cutting measures and exploring partnerships or mergers with other educational institutions. However, with an endowment primarily restricted and traditional revenue sources no longer proving sustainable, the school faces an uphill battle to secure its future.

The beauty of its campus and the invaluable work it does make the school’s current predicament all the more disheartening. Darrow stands at a critical juncture, its survival contingent upon finding innovative solutions to its financial woes while preserving its rich heritage.

As the community braces for what lies ahead, the uncertainty surrounding Darrow School’s future serves as a sobering reminder of the challenges faced by educational institutions striving to maintain their legacy amidst evolving economic landscapes.

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