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Legal entanglements

A land dispute embroils an international school that serves hundreds of missionary families in one of the most populous parts of the world

Legal entanglements

The GIS campus (Tim Shuman)

Handout photo

GRACE JAM: The Stowells

Tim Shuman

CAVEAT EMPTOR: The pool on the GIS campus.

Tim Shuman

CAVEAT EMPTOR: The basketball courts on the GIS campus.

In June 2012, Ryan and Rebecca Stowell made a life-altering decision: They left the family restaurant they had managed for almost two decades in Salida, Colo., and moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work as missionaries with Frontier Labourers for Christ. As Ryan settled into his duties as manager of a new conference center where the Barefoot Doctors train, Rebecca helped transition their two sons, 15-year-old Tyler and 12-year-old Caleb—a task made easier with the help of Grace International School (GIS). 

More than 90 percent of the school’s 650 students are children of Christian workers in Central and Southeast Asia. “Without Grace International School, we would probably have to pack up and go home,” Ryan Stowell said.

But the school’s future is in jeopardy. GIS is fighting a legal battle over the land and building it purchased in 2001 that could result in the school’s eviction and a substantial financial loss.

The local neighborhood association claims GIS purchased the building and facilities, formerly the World Club Sports Complex, illegally and is suing the school and two additional parties—the developer and the bank that funded the transaction—for the rights to the facility.

School administrators claim the transaction was legal and are hoping Thailand’s Supreme Court will hear their case. In the meantime, they are preparing for the worst: If the lower court’s ruling is upheld, GIS may only have a short amount of time to relocate the school, return the Sports Complex facilities to its original condition, and turn over the keys to the complex.

The idea for Grace International School began in the late 1990s. A group of mission organizations compared notes and concluded they were losing field workers in Southeast and Central Asia due to a lack of quality and affordable education for the workers’ children. With 30 percent of the world’s population within a three-hour flight, Thailand has become one of the most prominent missionary hubs on the globe.

From that need, GIS was launched in 1999 with 176 students. In the early days, the school rented the basement of the Sports Complex, which was designed to be the anchor for a new upscale development in Chiang Mai. The neighborhood, Mubaan World Club, has close to 1,000 homes, and the Sports Complex included a variety of enticing perks—one of the largest swimming pools in the area, squash courts, archery, a fitness center, and tennis courts.

This complex has become the cornerstone of a lawsuit that has entangled the school for five years.

The neighborhood association claims the developer promised lifetime memberships to the Sports Club—much like a country club without a golf course—to 300 original homeowners. But in the late 1990s, a recession hit Thailand that resulted in massive repercussions to the housing market. With numerous loans outstanding, the developer rented the basement of the facility to GIS in 1999 and sold the entire Sports Complex to the school in 2001.

The “lifetime members” are still able to enjoy the facilities for free but only during nonschool hours and to a limited degree. Grace scaled back some of the club’s amenities: Several of the squash courts were converted into classrooms, and the archery range and restaurant no longer exist.

Tom Matyas is president and CEO of Grace International Education Foundation—a nonprofit founded in 2008 that raises funds for the school’s building campaign. He says the sale of the facility to GIS was a blessing for homeowners in the neighborhood. “If Grace hadn’t come in, the Sports Complex would have been foreclosed on or sat for years and years,” Matyas said. “In all likelihood the landowners would not have had the Sports Club anyways. Or even worse, they could possibly have had a big structure sitting there empty and unoccupied except for all sorts of rats and rodents.”

Problems didn’t begin for the school until 2009. The government in Thailand passed The Procedures for Consumer Protection Act, giving consumers the right to sue for promises not delivered by the seller. On the day the law took affect, the World Club Nittibukol, or neighborhood association, sued the developer, the bank, and GIS for full rights to the facility.

The following year, the lower court ruled in favor of the association, and GIS filed an appeal and a request to have the case moved to Bangkok. In July 2013, Bangkok’s Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s ruling that GIS should evacuate the Sports Club facility; pay $165,000 plus interest for damages; pay court fees, title transfer fees, and approximately $1,700 in legal fees; and restore the facility to its original condition.

This was a decisive blow to the school. If the ruling is enforced, the original $1.3 million raised from mission agencies, individuals, and missionary families to purchase the land and building in 2001 will be lost on top of the fines imposed. The school spent additional donor money on improvements to convert the Sports Complex into a school. 

According to a Sept. 19 email addressed to GIS parents from the school’s advancement director Matt Coe, “the movable assets of the school (computers, vehicles, etc.) could be seized and auctioned with the proceeds being applied to the amounts outstanding under the judgment.”

GIS received some good news in September: The country’s Supreme Court issued an emergency stay of execution, postponing what could have been a November eviction. Matyas said it could take days or years for the Supreme Court to decide if it will hear the case, and the school has pinpointed a number of possible temporary locations to rent should the case be denied and the school forced to turn over the premises. However, the options are not ideal and could involve more than one site with up to an hour drive for parents to take their kids to school.

School officials have refused to answer WORLD’s questions regarding the 2001 donor-funded purchase and whether the school made any promises to the neighborhood association when it purchased the complex, raising questions about the school’s active campaign to raise $18 million for a new school. GIS purchased land three years ago and is hoping to quickly raise the $4.5 million necessary to build the middle school and high school, the age groups threatened by the eviction. GIS officials say plans were in the works for a new school prior to the lawsuit.

A letter sent to World Club residents and GIS parents (and posted on the blog of GIS Superintendent Don Williams and wife Kathy) claims the transaction was legal and straightforward: “At that time, no questions were raised about the legality of the transaction. All the papers were properly filed in government offices to transfer ownership to GISEF.” The blog also states in a 2009 post that the contract for lifetime memberships was “between the developer and the residents” and GIS “assumed no responsibility for the ‘contract.’”

The founding organizations of GIS are among the largest and most-established mission organizations in the world—the Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, SIL International, New Tribes, and Pioneers. I communicated with all five founding organizations, and they spoke positively about their interactions with GIS. International Mission Board Executive Vice President Clyde Meador said his organization was involved from the beginning but he does not have knowledge of funds contributed toward the building purchase.

Grace International School has 75 teachers and 50 staff members, and all foreign employees raise their own support to keep costs low. GIS parents are involved in mission work in 27 countries in Southeast and Central Asia, and the school boards about 150 students, primarily in the upper grades. Their dorms are run by a mission agency and are not jeopardized by the lawsuit, but the school’s eviction could result in a significantly longer commute for many of the school’s students.

Matyas says these sorts of challenges come with the territory: “Thailand changes constitutions and governments pretty frequently and when you live in a foreign country you have to live according to their laws.” Relationships with Thai neighbors are also important, he added: “Grace is there not just to educate kids and facilitate families being out on the field. It’s also an outreach to the community.”

Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters. Follow her on Twitter @WorldNels.


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  • MEG
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:21 pm

    Yes, PhilMK, you're right that the correct reading would be "the group did not get back to me in a timely manner..."  The administration has been advised, due to the sensitivity of the issue, to check with their lawyer before commenting publicly.  They communicated to World that it would take longer that the time limit set, whereupon World decided to go to press.  Shame on World! What's worse, is to then cast suspicion on Grace's fund-raising principles.  This is definitely a case of "guilty until proven innocent."  With the need to move to another location (for a variety of reasons, including the high maintenance of the sports complex -- which wasn't built well -- as well as having outgrown the facility), there is a great need for financial contributions.  World has just greatly undercut that possibility. Bigblessedfam, I'm thankful that homeschooling works for your family.  For one of our sons, it's didn't, though we tried. As missionaries, we are constantly making decisions that have no ideal solution.  We ask God for wisdom.  Please don't give a blanket criticism until you've heard the situations.

  • philMK
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:21 pm

    It seems like World is fond of using the term "... have refused to answer WORLD's questions regarding " to mean, the group did not get back to me in a timely manner so I could not make my deadline if I waited for them". It would be nice to be more accurate as the implication of the two statements are quite different. This happened in the case of another organization I know as well.As an MK who now has my first grandchild on the way I must say that some of my best childhood memories were of the time I spent at a boarding school (Faith Academy) in the Philippines. Though not all of my friends had the same great experience, many of us did. I would be curious what the statistics look like between kids in the dorm and not in the dorm that were MKs in terms of adjustment back in their home countries. Based on my experience it was often the well adjusted vs not so well adjusted parents (e.g. parents who talked about sacrificing, life is hard, etc vs parents who talked about all the great things in the countries where we lived while acknowledging the hard things) that were a much better indicator at who would succeed/continue to follow the Lord than the dorm kids vs kids who stayed with their parents. In the end there is no "good" indicator but blessedfam makes lots of assumptions when they imply that sending a child to a boarding school is a bad decision. I personally would not send a young child (elementary) to a boarding school but I would have sent ours to a high school. I would have monitored closely of course to see how things are going (dorm parent relationships, etc).

  • ThaiMK
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:21 pm

    @bigblessedfamThere is only a small percentage of students who have actually been put into dorms to come to this school. Most students live with their parents. And the ones that do happen to live in a dorm are only a couple of hours away from their parents. This is not a boarding school. 

  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:21 pm

    They could always homeschool their children,rather than leaving the country. So sad that those serving in the field send their children away to be disciplied by others. They are serving others but leaving the children entrusted to them to be raised away from them. The land dispute may be a blessing in disguise.