A group of Sidwell Friends alumni is raising concerns related to the private school’s decision to purchase a nursing facility that abuts the Washington campus, a land deal that will displace more than 100 of the home’s sick, elderly residents.
In a letter to Sidwell leaders last month, the alumni said that the problem is not with the purchase of the Washington Home, which will allow Sidwell to consolidate its lower and upper schools on one campus along Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest. The problem, they say, is with how the $32.5 million purchase unfolded.
Washington Home residents, many of whom are Medicaid patients, did not find out about the deal until it was already signed, and their families are scrambling to find alternative high-quality care in a city where that can be difficult to get.
The alumni want to see Sidwell do more to engage residents and help ensure that their transition is as seamless and stress-free as possible. The school might not have a legal obligation to do that, the alumni say, but it has a moral one — especially because of its grounding in Quaker values.
“We respectfully disagree with the hands-off — see no harm, hear no harm — approach that we have witnessed so far concerning the relocation process and the people affected,” wrote 15 members of the Class of 1978, and two of their siblings from other classes, in the Oct. 6 letter.
Responding eight days later, Sidwell officials said they empathize with Washington Home residents and their families and said it was “unfortunate” that those the home serves were surprised by the announcement of the sale.
“We can assure you, however, that during our negotiations representatives from the Home advocated staunchly for the needs of residents and employees and vigilantly exercised their fiduciary responsibility,” Head of School Bryan Garman and Board of Trustees clerk Margaret Plank wrote.
As for assisting with residents’ transition, they wrote, Sidwell has no particular expertise in nursing, hospice or end-of-life care, whereas the Washington Home has a proven track record of caring for its residents.
The agreement between the institutions allows “ample time and resources to execute thoughtful and individualized transition plans for residents,” Garman and Plank wrote. Although the home is set to close in December 2016, it can lease back the property for an additional six months if it needs more time to make sure everyone is settled.
Larry Ottinger, one of the alumni who signed the letter, called the school’s response “disappointing.”
“They’ve decided that we don’t want to get involved,” Ottinger said. “Obviously, the primary responsibility is with the Washington Home. But we’re alumni of Sidwell, and that’s the perspective we’re coming from. What can our institution do to uphold our values, which include using our talents in service of others?”
Ottinger said he would like to see representatives from the school meet with Washington Home residents to hear how they are feeling and ask what could be done to make their transition easier.
He said he also would like to see the school tap into its extensive alumni network to form a committee that would help ensure that residents connect with and get settled in new facilities.
Sidwell, founded in 1883, has an enrollment of 1,149 students and has educated generations of children from Washington’s most affluent and influential families, including President Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, as well as Chelsea Clinton, Julie and Tricia Nixon, and Archie Roosevelt.
Ottinger said he and his classmates were bothered that Sidwell did not mention the residents in its September letter announcing the deal, nor did a school Web site answering questions about the deal include any mention of the residents’ displacement.
“These residents seem to have been invisible,” he said. “As a Friends school that values the light within each person, what can we do to help?”
Ellis Turner, Sidwell’s associate head of school, said that many parents, students, faculty and alumni have weighed in on the plan to purchase the Washington Home.
“The overwhelming reaction has been both positive and supportive,” Turner said in a statement, adding that the school also has listened to critics of the plan.
Turner reiterated that Sidwell is not in a position to question the Washington Home’s decision to sell, nor its long-term strategy to shift to providing in-home care instead of inpatient hospice care.
“Sidwell Friends and its Board of Trustees have nevertheless offered to assist the Washington Home with resident transitions,” Turner said. “While our offers have been appreciated, they have also been declined. Sidwell Friends is confident that its approach has been appropriately compassionate, thoughtful, and consistent with the values of the Religious Society of Friends.”