Lycée Français, Pt. Deux

Lycée Français de New York director of finance Kim Barton, the man at least nominally responsible for shepherding the Franco-centric institution through an ambitious but controversial upgrade of its facilities, is no stranger to New York City prep-school scandale .

A little over two years ago, Mr. Barton resigned as director of finance for another upscale private New York school-Brooklyn Friends, the Quaker K-through-12 prep school in downtown Brooklyn-after a contretemps erupted over a budget gap of almost $1 million and how that shortfall came about.

In August, The Observer reported that the Lycée plans to finance its new, state-of-the-art school building on 75th and 76th streets, between York Avenue and the F.D.R. Drive, through bond issues, loans from the previous owner of the property, and the sale of property currently occupied by the school. The plan has attracted attention for its inventiveness, but has also raised a number of concerns. The sale of six opulent buildings on the Upper East Side near Central Park that previously housed the school have yielded disappointing returns. And to make matters worse, petroleum and other contaminants have been found at the new site.

For parents at Brooklyn Friends School, who live miles from the epicenter of this story, Mr. Barton’s appearance in The Observer article provoked sighs of recognition.

Two years ago, Brooklyn Friends was set to expand into two more floors of an adjoining building, to alleviate cramped conditions created by the school’s doubled enrollment. Overseeing the school’s budget at the time was Mr. Barton.

Things got unfriendly at the school when its governing body, the trustees of the Quakers’ New York Quarterly Meeting, performed an audit of the school’s finances and found a budget gap of close to $1 million.

The trustees ended up offering the school a $1.2 million loan to address the shortfall and pay debts, but tempers flared when it was discovered that approximately $250,000 had gone to underwrite personal expenses-including a Brooklyn apartment-for the popular head of school, Jim Handlin, that may not have had board approval.

“The ship was not run tightly,” said Dr. Michael Nill, who was appointed by the board as interim, and later permanent, head of school after Mr. Handlin was forced to resign in February of 2000. “That’s as much as I can say. And that was partly a board issue.” Dr. Nill also said that 90 percent of the $1.2 million loan has been repaid.

According to one Brooklyn Friends administrator, Mr. Barton was not forced to resign, though it may have come to that.

“He saw the writing on the wall,” the source said, and offered his resignation.

Mr. Barton declined to comment on the circumstances of his departure from Brooklyn Friends or the fiscal crisis he left behind when he made his move, but he did offer this statement: “My contract ended in June of 2000, and rather than going forward, I did not renew my contract and resigned and sought employment elsewhere, and was fortunate to find it at the Lycée.”

Before long, Mr. Barton found himself heading up another, even more ambitious school project: the sale of the Lycée’s Upper East Side school buildings to private buyers, and the purchase of the new site.

“After hiring Kim Barton, we did what we do for any hiring: We do our due diligence,” said Elsa Berry, the head of the school’s board of trustees. “We made all the calls-with the auditor, with the school leadership-and we were satisfied with what we found. We’ve been extremely satisfied with his performance and we work very closely with him, and our finances are extremely clear.”

The school recently completed the sale of its last two buildings, adjoining Beaux-Arts mansions, to the Emir of Qatar for a total of $26 million. That’s not chump change, but considering that the original asking price for the pair was $51 million, the figure looks like a big disappointment. In fact, none of the buildings sold for as much as the school had hoped.

Originally, 3 and 5 East 95th Street were priced at $19.5 million and $10.3 million, respectively; they sold for a combined $15 million. Sixty East 93rd Street, priced at $17 million, sold for around $10 million; and finally, 12 East 73rd Street, priced at $8 million, sold for $3 million.

With $54 million in the bank from the sale of all those townhouses, the school does have some cash to work with. But the property on York Avenue cost the school $20 million to buy from the Albanese family, residential developers who were thwarted in their own earlier efforts to build high-rises on the site. And the Lycée is not done with the Albaneses: $10 million of the purchase price was loaned to the school by the Albaneses, at an interest rate close to 10 percent.

In any case, almost all of the proceeds from the property sales are already committed to make collateral on the bond that will fund the construction of the building. The disappointing selling prices have also cut deeply into the school’s fund for building the new school: Sources said the Lycée initially planned to issue $117 million in bonds to finance construction of the new school, which would have required it to keep $55 million of collateral in the bank-$1 million more than the total take for all six of the Lycée’s buildings. As a result, the school has lowered its sights and will issue only $90 million in bonds, reducing the pressure to produce collateral-but also reducing the budget for the new facility.

According to Janel Patterson of the city’s Industrial Development Agency, which would issue the bonds for the construction of the new building, the bond issue has yet to go through.

Lycée administrators pooh-pooh the school’s losses, insisting there will be significant cash reserves left over for the school after construction is finished.

“In terms of the process, we have worked on worst-case scenarios, middle-ground and optimistic; we are constantly tweaking our assumptions as our environment is a constantly changing one,” said Ms. Berry. “Even in the worst-case scenario over the long term, we believe that we will have an endowment.”

She said she could not say how much that endowment would be.

-Tom McGeveran

Rock ’em, Sock ’em

Eminem may have a beef with Moby, but that doesn’t mean the blond rapper’s whole posse is watching his back.

On Aug. 29, actress Brittany Murphy, who has been linked with Eminem since co-starring with him in his upcoming film, 8 Mile , attended Fader magazine’s and Levi’s post–MTV Video Awards show at Milk Studios with a hefty bodyguard at her elbow. And though Eminem had dissed the bald techno musician from the stage of Radio City Music hall, threatening “I will hit a man with glasses,” Ms. Murphy was not about to be caught up in the controversy.

“Oh, no, there’s no antagonism with [Moby]. I just met him tonight for the first time. I introduced myself,” she said. “He’s a very nice man.”

Wait a second, Ms. Murphy. Eminem is your boyfriend, right?

“I really have no comment about that,” she replied with a cryptic smile. “But I will quote Eminem when he says, ‘I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t then why would I say I am, in the paper, the news every day I am.'”

Then Ms. Murphy translated: “One thing I’ve learned is that, no matter what I say, newspapers and the press are going to print whatever they like, no matter how absurd it is.”

Sartorially elegant White Stripes singer/songwriter Jack White, who wore a spotless Tom Wolfe suit and bowler hat, was less interested in talking about Eminem than Ms. Murphy: “You know if I answer that question, I’ll end up in his next song.” And though much had been made of the number of MTV Moonman statuettes that had been given to Detroit artists, Mr. White made it clear that his hometown was a big city. “The guy’s from a different part of Detroit than I am,” he said, referring to Eminem.

This being a party devoted to the music business, there were other grievances. Not long after New York’s the Strokes played the party, the group’s shaggy-haired bassist, Nikolai Fraiture, suggested that MTV wasn’t as cool as all those screaming bridge-and-tunnel girls in Times Square think it is. “They haven’t been that good to us,” Mr. Fraiture said. “They’re a big corporation. We respect that-that they control a lot,” he added. “But we would like to do things in a right, cool way. And they don’t really agree with that.”

What did he mean? The Transom asked.

“They want to be like the rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll, even though it happened without them, you know?” Mr. Fraiture said, referring to MTV’s reliance-until just recently-on boy, and girl, groups.

“I’m not saying that in a bad way,” Mr. Fraiture said. “But it happened aside from them, and they want to sound they like re-created the whole thing.

But then, perhaps remembering that his band’s video was being played on the network, he added: “Of course, it’s MTV. No offense to them.”

-Alex Pasternack

Spinning with Gwyneth

Picture Gwyneth Paltrow wiping someone else’s sweat off the Cybex machines, and it will come as no surprise that celebrity sightings at city gyms are rare indeed. So some members of the new Equinox Fitness Center on Greenwich Street in Tribeca have found it extremely suspicious that their sweat palace has so many show people-including actors Ms. Paltrow, Liv Tyler, Alan Cumming, Matthew Modine, comedienne Sandra Bernhard and model Iman-capering about the cardiovascular equipment.

According to the members-who cough up a $395 initiation fee plus $120 a month to join the gym-the steam rooms have been rife with speculation that Equinox’s celebrity clientele get free memberships, and that some may even be remunerated for their frequent, attention-getting appearances at the gym, which opened, with quite a bit of fanfare, in January.

A representative for Ms. Bernhard said the comedienne does go to Equinox for her aerobic workouts, though she meets her personal trainer at rival gym Crunch. Ms. Bernhard’s spokeswoman also said that Equinox offered Ms. Bernhard full gym access and membership at no cost. When The Transom later asked whether or not Equinox had offered to pay Ms. Bernhard to attend regular classes, her representative said that Ms. Bernhard was on vacation and could not be reached.

Stephen Huvane, a publicist who represents Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Cumming said that he was not aware of any special offers that had been made to either of his clients.

“Alan is training right now for a movie and is working with a trainer associated with Equinox. I’m not sure if he’s a member or if he pays per time,” said Mr. Huvane. He continued, “And Gwyneth has only taken a few classes there and is not a member.”

Mr. Huvane also said that “any special offer would probably go through my office, and we have not been contacted by the gym at all.”

Judy Taylor, Equinox’s vice-president for public relations, denied that anyone was paid to attend Equinox. And though she declined to name the gym’s celebrity clientele, she did say that many of the big names at Equinox work out for free.

“We have a certain amount of comps we give out,” said Ms. Taylor. “There’s a certain amount of dollars in our advertising budget. We don’t talk about them [the stars], we don’t solicit press, but it’s good for us to have them here. Like having Armani give a dress at the Academy Awards. We consider that advertising.”

– Rebecca Traister Lycée Français, Pt. Deux