Diocese aims for smooth schools transition - Catholic Courier

Diocese aims for smooth schools transition

Diocesan officials are striving for as smooth a transition as possible following Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s Jan. 18 announcement that 13 of the Monroe County’s 24 diocesan-operated elementary and middle schools will close at the end of this school year.

Doug Mandelaro, diocesan spokesman, said that the diocese is “trying to assess ways of increasing room” at the 11 schools remaining open, while holding to the diocesan standard of 28 to 30 students per classroom. He added that personnel from the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools will visit each school in an effort “to be creative in space use, seeing where we can convert areas to classrooms or even borrow parish space where possible, with parish leaders’ permission, of course.”

“We do believe we have room for everyone who might enroll in the remaining schools in the system, based on our preliminary estimates. We will certainly watch the situation carefully once enrollment begins and take further actions if necessary,” Mandelaro said, noting that the 2008-09 registration period for re-enrollment in Monroe County Catholic schools is Feb. 7 to March 19; registration for families new to the system will begin March 25. This year, he added, registration forms will enable families to indicate their first, second and third choices of schools.

Mandelaro acknowledged that diocesan officials are scheduling meetings with school representatives who wish to discuss the closings. Yet he said “an extraordinary set of circumstances” would have to unfold for the bishop to reverse his decision.

Schools within the City of Rochester slated for closure are St. Andrew, St. Boniface, Corpus Christi at Blessed Sacrament, Holy Cross, St. Monica and Holy Family. Suburban schools due to close are Catherine McAuley, Greece; St. Margaret Mary, Irondequoit; Holy Trinity, Webster; St. John the Evangelist, Spencerport; Good Shepherd, Henrietta; and St. John of Rochester, Fairport. All Saints Academy, a middle school in Gates, is on the closure list as well.

Unaffected by the closings are five diocesan-sponsored but independently operated schools in Monroe County. Because the restructuring plan leaves Brighton’s Siena Catholic Academy as the only diocesan-run junior-high school, however, these schools are announcing plans to expand their junior-high offerings for 2008-09 or to accommodate more students in existing programs (see related story on A9.)

Lower costs all around

The closing plan was precipitated by a mounting crisis for the Monroe County Catholic School System. Lisa Passero, diocesan chief financial officer, noted that Catholic schools in Monroe County face a shortfall is $1.3 million for the 2007-08 school year — and that the shortfall was expected to rise to $5.3 million by the end of 2008-09 due to continuing enrollment declines and cost increases. Average per-student costs exceeded 2007-08 tuition by about $2,000, she said.

In September of 2007, Bishop Clark appointed the 23-member task force to address this crisis. His decision to close 13 schools was based on the task force’s recommendation that tuition be cut significantly in 2008-09 as a means of stabilizing sharply declining enrollment.

By closing a number of schools at once, the diocese will significantly reduce expenses, making it possible to reduce tuition by 27 percent. Tuition will drop from $4,050 in 2007-08 to $2,950 in 2008-09 for a parish-registered family with one child in the Monroe County Catholic School System. Similar savings are available for families who two or more children enrolled in Monroe County’s Catholic schools.

The diocese also is offering a $500, one-time credit for each family whose children attend schools that are slated to close in June and who re-enroll their children in any of the remaining Monroe County schools (see related story on A8).

In determining which schools would close or remain open, the task force weighed such factors as enrollment trends, expenditures, neighborhood shifts, building conditions, and availability of gymnasiums and play areas, Bishop Clark said.

According to statistics provided by diocesan officials, overall enrollment in Monroe County schools — as well as Catholic schools in the diocese’s other regions — has declined by nearly 50 percent in the past decade, while Monroe County tuition has doubled.

“There is an absolute correlation between tuition and enrollment decline,” Bishop Clark asserted Jan. 18.

In the cases of past school closings, approximately 35 percent of displaced students have re-enrolled at other Catholic schools, the bishop said. However, with lower tuition and the $500 incentive on tap for 2008-09, he said he hopes for a retention rate of nearly 50 percent.

Bishop Clark has not announced closings among the 15 diocesan elementary and middle schools outside of Monroe County, which continue to operate under direct parish management. However, he said two of those schools — Holy Family in Dansville, Livingston County, and St. Patrick in Owego, Tioga County — are “at risk” and that he has asked parish officials to seriously consider the feasibility of their remaining open in 2008-09 (see related story on A13).

Communities seek options

Stephen Oberst, principal of Chili’s St. Pius Tenth School, said he already has begun promoting his west-side school to families from St. John the Evangelist, Spencerport; Good Shepherd, Henrietta; Holy Family, Rochester; and St. Monica, Rochester. Although these schools are not located in Chili, Oberst observed that St. Pius Tenth covers a wide geographic area that includes students from Caledonia, Mumford, Wheatland, Ogden and Riga. He added that St. Pius Tenth has a current enrollment of 250 students and can accommodate as many as 425.

And Sam Zalacca, principal of Our Mother of Sorrows School in Greece, said there’s enough room at his facility to absorb students from nearby Holy Cross and Catherine McAuley. He said he would rely on diocesan officials to determine where to cap class sizes and faculty additions.

On the other hand, parents, alumni and other supporters of several Monroe County schools slated for closure have launched spirited initiatives in hopes of averting this eventuality. Among their approaches have been fundraising and petition-writing campaigns; creation of Web sites; and attempts to get 100 percent of their students to re-enroll in the 11 remaining Monroe County schools for next year in hopes of convincing diocesan officials that there is not enough room at these schools.

Indeed, in addition to dismay about the closing of their own schools, a chief concern among many affected principals and parents is whether neighboring Catholic schools will have sufficient openings for the large number of displaced students.

Approximately 1,950 of a countywide total of 4,883 students will be displaced by the closings. Mandelaro said 197 faculty members also will be displaced and that a separation plan has been developed to assist them (see related story on A8.)

“The clear fact is that there is not enough room at nearby Catholic schools (including St. Joseph and St. Louis) to incorporate the over 175 students from St. John of Rochester,” asserts an item posted at www.savesjr.com, a Web site dedicated to the preservation of St. John of Rochester School.

Rebecca Maloney, principal of Holy Cross School in Charlotte, said 250 to 300 people attended a Jan. 20 meeting at the school to explore whether some of the affected schools might be spared.

“We’re not just looking out for Holy Cross. We feel that the cuts were too deep,” Maloney said.

Maloney feels the diocese’s announced tuition reduction will result in greater retention of displaced students than the 50-percent level Bishop Clark said was anticipated. She said that numerous families have cited unaffordable tuition as their reason for leaving Holy Cross School in recent years.

Along the same lines, Eileen O’Neill, principal at St. John of Rochester, said her school has received several calls from parents whose children currently are not enrolled in the school but who became interested after hearing about the drop in tuition.

“I think people don’t realize we are one of the schools slated to close,” O’Neill said.

Although he said the diocese will meet with school officials to discuss their hopes of preserving their schools, Mandelaro cautioned that “the bishop’s willingness to listen should not be taken as an indication he is veering from the plan he announced.”

“It would take an extraordinary set of circumstances for that to occur,” he continued. “We don’t want to raise false hopes and we would like to avoid any situation in which people assume some change will come and do not register at a new school.”

Emotions run high

Zalacca observed that finding space is not the only concern for schools taking on displaced students. One of the challenges, he said, will be the healing process — one that, based on reactions of those affected, will apparently take considerable time.

Father Thomas Wheeland, longtime pastor of Holy Cross Parish, struggled to begin his homily at the 5 p.m. Mass on Jan. 19. After a long pause, he told the congregation that the news regarding Holy Cross School one day earlier has “taken my heart away.”

At St. John of Rochester, O’Neill said that “one little third-grader asked who is the bishop’s boss, because she wanted to write a letter. So she wrote a letter to the pope asking that her school stay open.”

The bishop himself was visibly emotional at the Jan. 18 press conference announcing the closings. He acknowledged that his decision “will cause a lot of upset in the community” and that pain inflicted upon all concerned “hurts me very much,” but that in his role as bishop it’s his responsibility “to name the problem and face the problem.”

During a Jan. 24 parent planning meeting at Good Shepherd School, participants were quick to name what makes their school special. Terri Scroger, chair of the School Advisory Committee, noted the “sense of genuine belongingness” at Good Shepherd, and her 11-year-old son, Curtis, described the school as an “amazing place.”

“It’s sad, all the work people have put into this school, and now we are at risk of closing,” said Curtis, a sixth-grader who has attended Good Shepherd since kindergarten.

Debbie Stevens of Rush, whose daughter, Ariana, is a Good Shepherd student, said her daughter cried when she heard the news that her school was slated to close.

“It broke my heart,” Stevens said, pausing as tears welled up in her eyes. “It would just be really, really an awful thing if it did happen.”

Contains reporting by Amy Kotlarz and Karen Franz.

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