Disappointment and determination greeted Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s Feb. 12 statement that he plans to move ahead with the closing of 13 Catholic schools in Monroe County, despite having weighed alternatives offered by several parent groups.
Several coalitions had formed to devise plans for reversing the fate of their respective schools in light of Bishop Clark’s Jan. 18 announcement that more than half of Monroe County’s 24 diocesan-operated elementary and middle schools will close in June. The bishop’s decision was based on a 23-member task force’s recommendation to address a growing deficit, escalating tuition costs and declining enrollment.
Representatives of the parent groups presented their proposals in early February during meetings with diocesan and Monroe County Catholic schools officials.
However, the bishop said Feb. 12 that reopening one or more schools would jeopardize retention and enrollment goals for those remaining open, thus undermining the financial stability of the system.
“While I greatly appreciate these proposals, I remain confident that the task force recommendations to close these schools and focus our resources on 11 remaining schools (in Monroe County) is the best chance we have of stabilizing our financial pressures in the long term and preserving Catholic education for the future,” the bishop said in a statement.
“I was very disappointed. I really thought we had a great plan,” said Christine Velte, chair of the school advisory committee for Holy Cross School in Charlotte. Velte noted that her group had proposed that the school become independently operated, retaining a diocesan affiliation but assuming all financial responsibility for operations.
Eileen O’Neill, principal of St. John of Rochester School, said supporters wanted her Fairport school to remain open as a diocesan-run school, bolstered by an endowment fund she said had in two weeks’ time garnered more than $400,000 in pledges toward a goal of $1 million.
“We felt that it was a very good plan, and we were told it was a very good plan (by diocesan and schools officials.) There is frustration because we haven’t been given the chance to keep the school open,” O’Neill said, adding that supporters would have liked at least a year’s time to prove that their plan could work.
Anna Summa, a parent representative from St. John the Evangelist School in Spencerport, said her group had devised a fundraising initiative that its members believed would have resulted in “a net zero cost for the diocese as well as getting our enrollment up.” But after Bishop Clark’s Feb. 12 announcement, she said, “We feel at this point we don’t have very many options other than prayer.”
One option Summa, Velte and O’Neill have embraced is encouraging as many students as possible from their respective schools to register at the remaining 11 Monroe County schools. Registration for returning Catholic-school students began Feb. 13, and registration for new students is set to begin on March 25.
This effort, they said, seeks to establish a retention rate of displaced students far higher than the 47-percent retention estimated by the task force in hopes of persuading the diocese that it needs to keep open some of the buildings slated for closure. They noted that in a Feb. 12 statement, diocesan officials said they “will do the best we can to seat every child who would like a Catholic education,” and that space issues, if any, would be addressed as they arise.
“I’ve been urging all the parents I’ve come in contact with to register,” Summa said. “An overabundance of students might be the only way.”
“Our belief has always been if we can have everybody register, there will be a need for more Catholic schools,” O’Neill said.
“The bottom line is Catholic education, whether it’s in our building or another building,” said Velte, who added, “I’m really hopeful, that by the grace of God something will happen that will allow (Holy Cross) to stay open.”
Parents and other supporters of the closing schools also expressed their hope during a prayer rally in front of Sacred Heart Cathedral late in the afternoon of Feb. 15.
Along with the three aforementioned schools, also slated for closure are Holy Trinity, Webster; Catherine McAuley, Greece; Good Shepherd, Henrietta; St. Margaret Mary, Irondequoit; St. Andrew, St. Boniface, Corpus Christi at Blessed Sacrament, St. Monica and Holy Family, Rochester; and All Saints Academy, Gates. All are elementary schools except All Saints, which is a middle school.
The closings will enable the diocese to reduce Monroe County tuition by 27 percent, to $2,950 for one child of a parish-sponsored family. Significant tuition reductions also are available for multistudent families that are parish-sponsored, as well as nonsponsored families. In addition, the diocese is offering a $500, one-time credit for each family whose children attend schools that are due to close and who re-enroll their children at any of the remaining Monroe County schools.