The ongoing debacle at the St. Bernard’s School, the 116-year-old private all-boys elementary and middle school just off Fifth Avenue in the heart of one of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods, can be summed up in four words: Rich people behaving badly.
The stranger-than-fiction saga unfolding on East 98th Street reached a shocking low moment in a string of shocking low moments with the late-June dismissal of Stuart H. Johnson III, the revered longtime headmaster, by the school’s board of trustees—many of whom don’t even have kids at the school—despite having reached a previous compromise with Johnson that would have allowed him to stay until June 2021 and then to retire gracefully. No more. Now he’s out. Immediately. “They’re just stirring up the hornets’ nest again,” says one Old Boy, as the school’s alumni are known.
“Take a Knee. Say the Oath”
Since his schooling at St. Albans, Exeter, and Yale, and seven years as a homeroom teacher at St. Bernard’s, Johnson has been the school’s headmaster for 35 years. That reign ended abruptly on June 26 of 2020. Under the fig leaf of a year-long “sabbatical” and a seemingly heavily lawyered letter to the school community filled with publicly unsubstantiated innuendo, Johnson has spent the past week or so packing up his office, never to return. Johnson’s sudden departure has some alumni steaming. “The board is full of a lot of rich people that just said, ‘Fuck it. Sue us. We’re going to rip the Band-Aid,’” says another Old Boy. “They’ve operated in bad faith the whole time.”
All this was happening amid the coronavirus pandemic, forcing students and teachers at the school to carry on with a semblance of normalcy, via Zoom, while parents wondered what they were getting for their $48,500 tuition. To make matters worse, if that’s possible, the St. Bernard’s community suffered another devastating blow when, on June 9, a second-grader died after being hit by a car while riding his bike. The consensus seems to be that the sudden defenestration of Johnson—on top of the coronavirus and the grieving—was all too much, all too stupid, and all too self-inflicted.
“I just can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s gone to DEFCON 1, why they had to be such dicks,” says another Old Boy about the school’s board of trustees. “First of all, it’s just a school. It’s a private elementary school, and this guy was a legend. He dragged the school out of the dark ages of the 70s and was a superstar. Sure, he’s old-school, but O.K., maybe it was time to move on. But I think they’re treating him like a pariah, which is ridiculous. I’m reading about the Tudors right now. It reminds me of that shit. You know, ‘Take a knee. Say the oath.’”
The long march to Johnson’s end began in May 2019, when Craig Huff, a wealthy hedge-fund manager, who is president of the board of trustees and whose son is a seventh-grader at the school, approached Johnson, then 64, and encouraged him to start thinking about leaving. “He’s human,” Huff told a meeting of the Old Boys on February 13. “We all age and die.”
The executive committee of the board then hired its first law firm to negotiate Johnson’s exit. In exchange for an alleged $4 million severance payment, and mutual non-disclosure agreements, Johnson and the executive committee agreed the headmaster would leave at the end of June 2021, and that an orderly succession plan would be implemented. (A source close to the board disputed the severance-payment amount.) Huff allegedly had his eye on Robbie Pennoyer, a descendant of J. P. Morgan’s, as Johnson’s successor. Pennoyer, a well-respected Old Boy himself and also a member of the board of trustees, is the much-beloved assistant head of school at Grace Church School, in Manhattan, who unknowingly found his name thrown into the mess. Huff was allegedly eager to consider him for St. Bernard’s. (Huff has said that neither the executive committee nor the board has a preferred candidate, and according to the board Pennoyer recused himself from all votes concerning Johnson’s employment. Pennoyer did not respond to a request for comment.)
Parents wondered what they were getting for their $48,500 tuition.
Somehow the negotiations between Johnson and the four-member executive committee were kept quiet from the school’s stakeholders—teachers, parents, students, Old Boys—throughout the summer and into the fall. When Johnson announced, last December, that he would be leaving, the community went into shock. In retrospect, there was a “harbinger” of what might be happening to Johnson, one Old Boy says. At the November 2019 annual Fathers Dinner, Johnson said that if he were to get hit by a bus, they should make sure that Evan Moraitis, a longtime teacher at the school, “take over.” (Moraitis was named interim headmaster for the next school year.) Others wondered why Johnson had filled the board of trustees in the first place with so many ambitious rich people.
“If You Want Woke, Go to Fieldston”
The insidious N.D.A.’s made matters worse. As is often the case, the silence such documents create can be filled with noise from those who want to spread theories or conspiracies. Neither Johnson nor the executive committee will say what had prompted the departure discussions. It would have been easy enough to explain that, after 35 years with Johnson at the helm, it was time to think about new leadership. That did not happen. Into the yawning maw stepped rumor after nasty rumor: allegations of affairs between Johnson and teachers and between Johnson and mothers; allegations of kids out of wedlock. In that vein. And those were on top of the hard feelings among some board members about Johnson’s failing, for all his wisdom and greatness, to bring the school into the modern age of iPads, Mandarin, sports, and STEM. There were allegations of a hard-driving school culture that one parent says may have resulted in the attempted suicides of two seventh-graders and allegations that the school tolerated anti-Semitism.
Some board members believed that Johnson had re-traded the December 2019 deal and was fomenting the parental efforts to reinstate him. And, the charges continued, Johnson wasn’t doing enough to get the boys into Andover, Exeter, and St. Paul’s, the most elite prep schools. A person who has known Johnson over the years said that “the rumor-mongering designed to impugn Stuart Johnson’s reputation professionally and personally is shameful. What St. Bernard’s and all who have known Mr. Johnson continue to witness is a virulent form of McCarthyism. Indeed, the letter from Mr. Johnson announcing his sudden sabbatical is reminiscent of those despicable videos of forced hostage statements.” Johnson declined to comment for this article. Huff says that St. Bernard’s “does not tolerate anti-Semitism or any other form of discrimination.”
“I just can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s gone to DEFCON 1, why they had to be such dicks.”
“It doesn’t really matter what’s true and what’s not,” says an Old Boy. “There’s a lot of rumors, a lot of innuendo, and Stuart is not able to defend himself, and it doesn’t matter. You had a -year beloved headmaster, and you couldn’t find an honorable way for him to leave.”
Parents of students in the younger grades were especially outraged by the prospect of Johnson’s departure. They were upset that they would be deprived of Johnson’s pedagogy way sooner than they might have anticipated. As one Old Boy told me, in support of the parents’ view, St. Bernard’s is a unique “product.” He added, “If you want woke, go to Fieldston. Go to Dalton. Go to Trinity. They’re all the same. St. Bernard’s has always been quirky and it remains somewhat quirky, in part because of Stuart. Stuart’s quirky, for good or for bad.” Adds another Old Boy about the school: it’s “an old, slightly boiled-cabbage English education.”
Flowery, impassioned letters started flying from parents and Old Boys alike. Wasn’t there some way for Johnson to stay while a more orderly and dignified transition was arranged? Still, Johnson and the board said nothing, further stoking the rumors. Some in the community began to wonder whether Johnson had changed his mind about leaving the school in June 2021 and was, in fact, encouraging the disgruntled parents in their letter-writing campaign. In February, the spokesperson for the board says, a number of current and former teachers and school administrators approached the board with allegations of Johnson’s misdeeds. That prompted the board to ask Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the board’s new white-shoe law firm, to begin an investigation into the allegations. Cravath conducted its investigation over the next few months and gave the board regular updates on its findings.
Around the same time, some unnamed wealthy parents hired Jim Walden, a former prosecutor, to bring a lawsuit against the executive committee of the board to try to find out what had really happened and whether Johnson could be permitted to stick around. Mary Jo White, the former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, and a former parent at the school, led a delegation of Old Boys and parents to try to reach a compromise with Huff: among other things, Johnson would get to stay another five years. Huff did not respond to the overture. (The spokesperson for the board says that, because of an ongoing investigation into Johnson’s conduct as headmaster, in March the board could not engage in negotiations about extending the headmaster’s tenure.)
On March 19, three weeks after the compromise had been suggested, Walden filed the lawsuit in New York State court on behalf of the anonymous plaintiffs, known as “John Does,” alleging some rather jaw-dropping claims, such as that the executive committee had “orchestrated a secret coup,” was infiltrating the admissions process to favor the children of their friends, and that some members of the board had a “conflict of interest” with regard to managing the school’s roughly $140 million endowment, as one might with a board stacked heavily with private-equity mini-moguls and hedge-fund managers. (The spokesperson for the board says that the board hired law firm Patterson Belknap to investigate claims of financial wrongdoing and that the investigation found the allegations were “without merit.”)
Into the yawning maw stepped rumor after nasty rumor: allegations of affairs between Johnson and teachers and between Johnson and mothers; allegations of kids out of wedlock.
Then things started getting weirder, Walden tells me. Cravath’s investigation continued into June, although Cravath has not released it (and won’t share it). “There’s not been really any transparency,” Walden says. “It certainly seems to us that it started as a retaliation mechanism” after the filing of the parents’ lawsuit. (The spokesperson for the board maintains that Cravath, Swaine & Moore began its investigation of Johnson in February, well before Walden’s clients filed their lawsuit.) Walden then tells me that he heard from a board member that, “in connection with the termination decision,” Craig Huff said, “Now we’ve got Johnson gone. All we have to do is take care of the John Does, and we know who two of them are.” Walden says he heard that Huff was referring to the dismissal from the school of the sons of the John Does. (A spokesperson for the board disputed this quotation and said that the trustees “won’t punish children for the foolishness of their parents.”)
Anonymous Letters, Vitriol, and Band-Aids
Says one Old Boy, “The lawsuit really hardened the board,” and “pissed off” a number of them. But, he continues, “that’s bullshit,” and adds, “The suit was precipitated because they tried to stall. The suit happened because they didn’t come to a compromise. But now they’re saying that they wouldn’t come to a compromise because of the suit. It’s circular. It doesn’t make sense. It’s just not logical. So, yeah, ‘We’re going to fire him because we won’t compromise.’” Though the board couldn’t engage in negotiations with parents because of its ongoing investigation into Johnson, that didn’t stop some members of the community from deciding they had all the facts. The Old Boy continues, “They destroyed [Johnson] with this.... This makes him toxic. They’ve taken his livelihood away from him, and it’s total bullshit.”
On June 26, Johnson announced his “sabbatical” and departure. “The discord over my planned departure, which has preoccupied the school for the last six months, is not in the best interests of St. Bernard’s,” he wrote. Not 10 minutes later, the board released its own statement. “In the midst of the turmoil” of the previous six months, the board wrote, it had “received multiple credible complaints regarding Stuart’s conduct over time from members of the St. Bernard’s community, including members of faculty and staff.”
The board’s note said that it had hired outside counsel—Cravath—to conduct an investigation of the new allegations and that Cravath had reported to the board during “multiple meetings” that the “factual matters included in the allegations had been substantiated.” There was no elaboration. “Based on this review, the Board determined overwhelmingly that it is in the best interests of the school for Stuart to step down as Headmaster,” the board wrote. Says one Old Boy, “It’s a nasty paragraph. There was no need for that at all.”
The fallout was nearly immediate and impassioned. What had been an unfortunate incident, receding into the rearview mirror, flared up again whiter and hotter than ever.
“St. Bernard’s has always been quirky and it remains somewhat quirky, in part because of Stuart. Stuart’s quirky, for good or for bad.”
Anonymous parents circulated two lengthy letters, dripping with vitriol. One, on July 2, was incredulous about the board’s unsubstantiated innuendo. “We are scandalized that the board stooped to cheap and degrading tactics to discredit and threaten Mr. Johnson without regard for his dignity, and with no concern about their own integrity,” they wrote. “Alternative facts? We have been subject to alternative fictions that boggle the mind.” They weren’t done, not nearly. “The board has unswervingly acted to extort Vyshinsky-like confessions from Mr. Johnson that further the false notion that he was or is eager to leave St. Bernard’s,” they continued. “Yet who would stay with this Animal Farm of mean-spirited masters of the universe nominally in charge? Mr. Johnson—like any of us—has made mistakes, but they are vastly overshadowed by his inspired and steady leadership.” (A spokesperson for the board declined to comment on ongoing litigation.)
Board member Samantha Boardman, a psychiatrist as well as the wife of real-estate mogul Aby Rosen, and something of a gatekeeper of Upper East Side mores, resigned and wrote an impassioned letter to her former colleagues. After mentioning the death of the second-grader—“Our knees buckled when we heard the tragic news,” she wrote—she beseeched Huff to reconsider the board’s actions. “For the sake of the mental health of the community, can’t differences be put aside?” she asked. “In light of all the school has been through, is this upending change truly urgent?” As someone close to the board said in criticizing the lawsuit, “There are some real issues the school is facing now with distance learning, COVID, and diversity issues. Every minute the board is spending on this stuff, it’s not spending on the real important issues that we have to deal with.”
But, it seems, there will be little near-term opportunity for healing. On June 26, the judge presiding over the parents’ lawsuit gave Cravath more time to submit its motion to dismiss the case before considering it. She also agreed to add the full board of trustees—not just the executive committee—as respondents. There are some procedural hurdles to jump over in the next few months. But then Walden expects to depose Johnson and the St. Bernard’s board members to figure out what really happened and why. “A total treat,” he says. He will also likely get discovery of relevant e-mails, texts, and documents. “Every last text message,” he continues. He is determined, as are his deep-pocketed and anonymous clients. If ripping the Band-Aid off is what the board wanted, ripping the Band-Aid off is what it’ll get. “There is something deeper, something corrosive here of which we may have just scratched the surface,” he concludes.
A St. Bernard’s parent and wife of a Manhattan billionaire put it this way. “There has been a genuinely baffling and appalling degree of poor behavior on the part of this board,” she said, “from deceitfulness to bullying, to gross mismanagement. It’s an elementary school, for God’s sake, and from my vantage point it was a lovely and unique one. A total needless, hurtful shame.”
But as someone close to the board told me, with weariness in his voice, “It’s a tragedy. What was intended to be an orderly succession with an agreed-upon transition went out of control. People turned Stuart’s head and he changed his mind, and this emboldened some parents. No one signed up for any of this. I think the lawsuit’s only objective is to embarrass people in the press. We should be focusing on the kids.”
William D. Cohan is a Writer at Large for air mail