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Harlem Boys Choir faces loss of rent-free municipal home

With financial woes, it hopes to fend off eviction from school

NEW YORK -- There have been many moments of greatness over the decades for the Boys Choir of Harlem -- concerts around the world, audiences including Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II. But the choir has also struggled in recent years with financial troubles and management issues in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal.

Now, with the organization up to $5 million in debt, the choir is facing the loss of its home as well.

The city has told the Boys Choir to leave the public school where it has operated rent-free since 1993. Citing concern about the group's financial and management difficulties, the Department of Education sent a letter last month saying that the choir must vacate its office space by Jan. 31.

The children may still be able to use the building for after-school rehearsal. But as a partner in the school itself, city officials say the choir's administration isn't living up to its responsibilities.

Boys Choir supporters, including former mayor David Dinkins and Representative Charles Rangel, are asking the city to reconsider, or at least give it until the end of the school year to move. They have been meeting with city officials and made a presentation for a plan to improve the situation.

''We have, in hand, pledges, commitments exceeding a million dollars, and more forthcoming, but that will only be so if it appears that the city is willing to continue this partnership which has been so successful," Dinkins said.

The city isn't backing down.

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott said the Education Department's top priority is its responsibility to the more than 600 students in the school, I.S./H.S. M469, otherwise known as the Choir Academy of Harlem. The city hires the school's teachers and provides equipment and standard academic curriculum, while the choir organization is responsible for funding counselors, tutors, musical training, and a mandatory summer institute.

The Education Department said in its letter that the choir staff had stopped showing up for music and counseling duties, seemingly because the staff was not being paid. The department said it even had problems getting reliable information about the choir's touring dates, which affect attendance by students performing in the choir.

Fewer than 125 of the school's students perform in the Boys Choir of Harlem and the organization's newer girls choir. The department estimates the value of the use of the facilities by the choir organization at $550,000 a year.

The choir ''is using the school for free administrative and rehearsal space but is not providing students with the instruction and services that were the basis for our partnership," the department letter said.

The December letter outlined a number of concerns, including that the choir had not lived up to a 2004 agreement to find a new chief executive to replace founder Walter Turnbull. Turnbull was demoted to artistic director after an investigation concluded he did not act on reports that an employee was sexually abusing a student.

The Boys Choir was founded with 20 boys in the basement of a Harlem church in 1968. Its repertoire has been vast -- from classical to contemporary, gospel to jazz.

The Harlem Boys Choir has released albums and been heard on soundtracks of the movies ''Jungle Fever," ''Malcolm X" and the Grammy award-winning, Oscar-nominated soundtrack of ''Glory."

Rangel said everyone involved with the choir was determined to make sure it succeeded, and he pointed out the school's high graduation and college acceptance rates.

''I just can't let it be said that we let down these kids," he said.

Parents and students, confused and frustrated by the situation, want the city to find a way to help the choir instead to asking it to leave the school.

''I think that they are being very unreasonable," said Jacquelyn Ames, whose son is in eighth grade at the school. ''I do not think they have our children in their best interest, because if so, they would leave this program as it is."

Darron Singleton, 17, a senior at the school, said cooperation was the way to go. ''Work with them to bridge the gap," he said. ''Right now, it's hurting the students."

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