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Acclaimed Choir May Lose Its Harlem Home

City education officials say the nonprofit has violated an agreement to clean up its finances. Parents and politicians search for a resolution.

January 30, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Since its inception in a church basement in 1968, the Boys Choir of Harlem has served as a beacon for residents living in the gritty reaches of Upper Manhattan.

Viewed as a model of how to inspire inner-city youth, the choir -- along with its counterpart, the Girls Choir of Harlem -- has traveled around the world and performed before presidents, heads of state and even a pope. The young singers have collaborated with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Ray Charles and LL Cool J, and have released 16 albums.

But now the choir, mired in a tangle of financial problems, is at loggerheads with the city over its management -- and the conflict has grown so acute that the program may lose its home.

After occupying space in a public school on Madison Avenue and 127th Street rent-free for the last 13 years, the nonprofit is facing eviction Tuesday unless its leaders and city officials come up with a last-minute resolution.

The situation has angered and alarmed parents who say their children have thrived in the program, and has deeply upset the young choralists, who have taken to the streets with signs protesting the looming displacement.

"We are really confused and don't know what's going on," said 17-year-old Tyler Busher, who has been in the choir since the seventh grade. "There's a lot of chaos right now."

At issue is the choir's agreement with the city's Department of Education, which in 1993 agreed to let the organization run its program rent-free out of a public school in East Harlem. In return, the choir agreed to provide counselors and instructors for the school, known as the Choir Academy. About a third of the 600 students who attend the academy, which runs from fourth to 12th grade, participate in the choir's concerts and tours.

In recent years, however, the choir has suffered a number of setbacks, including the 2002 conviction of a counselor for molesting a 14-year-old boy in the program. A year later, a school district investigation found that choir founder and Chief Executive Walter Turnbull failed to act when the allegations were first made against the counselor and allowed him to continue supervising students on trips.

After the investigation, city officials asked the nonprofit to sign an agreement in January 2004 committing to significant changes in the choir's management. Among other moves, Turnbull was forced to resign as chief executive and to limit his role to running the choir's artistic program.

But the scandal exacerbated the nonprofit's financial problems, making it difficult to raise funds to keep the program going. Despite the choir's renown, it has never had a consistent funding source, officials said.

"We fall into the problem that many nonprofits fall into in which you're always trying to raise your year's budget that year," said Melvin Williams, secretary of the choir's board of directors. "The children perform so well and are so polished that people say, 'This organization can't need any money -- they look so professional.' "

Last year, the choir -- $5 million in debt, largely due to unpaid back taxes -- was unable to pay its staff, forcing the Department of Education to scramble to find replacement instructors for the academy. In the months that followed, the choir's leaders pledged to put together a plan to get the program back on its feet. City officials, however, grew impatient.

On Dec. 22, shortly after the choir returned from a tour in the Midwest, the Department of Education delivered a letter to the nonprofit's board stating that the choir had reneged on its agreements with the city. The letter cited, among other things, the group's inability to provide instructors for the academy, and charged that Turnbull was still running the day-to-day operations of the choir, a violation of its agreement with the city.

As a result, the department said, the city had decided to end the arrangement that allowed the choir to use the school for free administrative and rehearsal space.

The group was ordered to vacate the site by Tuesday.

Kelly Devers, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the city's "concern is for the education and well-being of the children who attend the Choir Academy of Harlem."

The choir "has done nothing to address the financial, operational and management problems that have plagued their organization," she said in a statement. "Our expectations have been clear. [The choir] has not lived up to its commitments to our children, who deserve a secure and stable learning environment where their education is the main priority."

Williams said the choir had sought to work with the city, and he disputed the notion that Turnbull was still running the choir. The board handles all the finances, he said, and although there was a period of time in which there was no executive director, someone was recently hired for the post.

"The children shouldn't be the ones who are victimized in this," Williams said.

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