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Russian-American School Closed By IRS After Nearly 30 Years

October 1, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Internal Revenue Service closed a high school that trained its students in the values and culture of prerevolutionary Russian over a $100,000 debt, officials say.

St. Sergius High School, approaching its 30th anniversary in a month-to- month panic over its finances, was shut Thursday by IRS agents.

Thirty-seven students, ages 6 to 18, were ordered to leave on what was the first day of classes at the bilingual school and doors were padlocked, said the school’s founder, the Rev. Anthony Grabbe.

″They were crying,″ he said. ″They were saying, ‘This is our school, what are you doing?’ They said, ’Where is my mommy? What should I do?‴

IRS spokesman Neil O’Keeffe said the school owed $89,281 in employee withholding taxes dating from Dec. 31, 1985. He said interest and penalties would raise the amount to more than $100,000.

Grabbe said the school - the only fully accredited Russian-English secondary school in the nation - was trying to work out an arrangement with the IRS that would allow it to remain open as it made payments to cover its debt.

O’Keeffe, explaining why agents moved in while schoolchildren were in class, said, ″We were led to believe the school was not operating.″

He said IRS officials at the scene decided to delay the seizure until after the school day but acted earlier because Grabbe sent the students home early.

Grabbe said agents entered the school ″like terrorists, jumping, pushing and shouting at children ... like it would happen in the Soviet Union and not in an intelligent democratic country.

″They went on the street shouting to children to disappear and not stand in the front of the school because they were catching public attention.″

O’Keeffe said he doubted IRS agents acted in the way Grabbe described.

Four IRS staffers were sent to the school and the building was not seized until all the children were out, O’Keeffe said.

Grabbe said he started the school with a promise to the state that there would always be sufficient funds at the ″bank of faith and hope.″

He recently marveled that celebrities, including designer Oleg Cassini and John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, always seemed to come through with donations and help just in time to save the school from closure.

The school, which once enrolled 100 students, was started for youngsters from the New York Russian emigrant community to transmit Russia’s heritage to them. It offered a complete program of Russian language, history and culture besides a standard program taught in English.

It broadened its program in 1963 to include non-Russian students. Although its enrollment remained about half Russian, the rest was composed of students from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Grabbe said the school is the only fully accredited Russian-English secondary school in the nation and one of the very few that seeks to preserve the culture of czarist Russia.

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