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Catholic schools face closings Declining enrollments expected to prompt more consolidations as worried parents argue for maintaining parish institutions

Susan Skoney has only good things to say about the education her son and daughter receive at St. Edmund Catholic School in the Town of Tonawanda.

Most of all, she and her husband, Michael, like the intimacy of the school, which has only 94 pupils this year and class sizes of 10 to 12 youngsters.

But St. Edmund's small enrollment also might be the biggest stumbling block to its survival.

In what has become almost an annual ritual in recent years, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo is expected to announce soon another round of school closings.

Skoney worries the St. Edmund School will be among them.

"As these parish schools close, it's really changing the whole face of education in Western New York," she said.

From 1996 to last year, Catholic elementary schools in the diocese lost a quarter of their enrollment -- a trend that led to closing a dozen schools during the period.

The enrollment declines have continued at some schools, and more closings will be announced soon, diocesan officials confirmed.

The diocese won't identify which schools are slated to close until pupils and parents are informed. But St. Agnes School, with 157 pupils on Ludington Street in the Lovejoy neighborhood appears to be among the first to be targeted. A closed-door meeting with parents was held Thursday evening, but a diocesan spokesman refused to comment on the school's future.

Low enrollment played a major role in past closings, largely because small pupil populations put extreme pressure on a parish's ability to afford a school.

Currently, 19 of the 61 schools in Erie and Niagara counties enroll 150 or fewer pupils, and eight of those have 100 or fewer. With too little income from tuition to pay teacher salaries and utility costs, some parishes are using as much as 80 percent of their Sunday collections to support schools, according to diocesan officials.

Schools in Cheektowaga have encountered the steepest and steadiest enrollment decline in recent years.

The diocese shut down four parish schools and merged two others into one in 2003 -- but those closings did little to bolster enrollments in the remaining Cheektowaga schools.

St. Aloysius Gonzaga School, for example, enrolled 311 pupils a decade ago, but it now has 95 -- a drop of 69 percent. A few blocks away on Cleveland Drive, Infant of Prague School lost 43 percent of its student body over the past 10 years.

To stem the tide, a group of pastors and principals presented a plan to the diocese that would whittle the number of schools from six to two -- one in north Cheektowaga and the other in south Cheektowaga. The group did not recommend which sites should remain open, said Monsignor Angelo Caligiuri, pastor of Infant of Prague.

"There's been an honest effort to be upfront with everybody," he said. "It would be a step toward making [Catholic education] more accessible to people and more fiscally responsible."

The Cheektowaga schools suffer from broader demographic shifts, Caligiuri said.

The once heavily Catholic town is now far more diverse, he said.

Catholic couples who buy the post-World War II homes so common in the town often leave for bigger houses when they have children.

"Just like that, they move out to Lancaster and Clarence," Caligiuri said.

Tuition has steered some parents away from Catholic schools -- even though the average for Catholic schools in the Buffalo Diocese is well below the national average.

"They're some of the lowest I've seen in the country," said Robert F. Shea, a Dallas-based consultant.

In most schools, tuition covers only a portion of education costs -- something many parents don't realize, said Shea, who was hired in the fall by the Buffalo Diocese to recommend restructuring schools.

Shea, a former teacher, principal and school president, has worked with several dioceses and archdioceses, including Dallas; Indianapolis; Hartford, Conn.; and Nashville, Tenn. -- all grappling with how to maintain Catholic education, he said.

"I don't know of any place in the country where it isn't an ongoing challenge," he said.

The Buffalo area's declining population and sluggish economy, however, add to the diocese's challenges.

"It's difficult enough to support Catholic schools in a growing economy, let alone in an economy that may be a tad stagnant or in decline," he said.

Some parishes have dipped into reserves to weather the storm and keep schools going.

"But reserves run out after a while," Caligiuri said.

Enrollment losses at Most Precious Blood School in Angola have forced parishioners to foot more of the bill.

The school is down to 97 pupils this year -- a 60 percent decline from 1987.

"We do have major financial pressure here. Much of it is because enrollment is down," said the Rev. Matt Nycz, pastor of Most Precious Blood Church.

Most Precious Blood School was one of 12 in the diocese selected last March by the Catholic School Development Program to participate in a pilot project designed to turn around enrollment declines and bolster school finances.

The program helped: The school recruited 20 new pupils who enrolled last fall, said Nycz.

Still, amid rumors that the school might be shut down, an equal number of pupils left at the end of the last school year.

"It was a wash," Nycz said. "The decreasing enrollment is a result of rumors we might be closing."

St. Edmund, at 530 Ellicott Creek Road, has just 94 pupils this year -- down from 122 a decade ago and 155 in 1986.

One proposal calls for the school to be "absorbed" into St. Christopher School at 2660 Niagara Falls Blvd. at the end of the current school year, according to parents.

The Rev. Robert A. Wozniak, pastor of St. Edmund Church, declined to comment.

Despite the low enrollment at the school, Skoney and other parents say they believe the parish has enough money to keep it going.

"We have money to stay solvent," she said. "And we have a very nice school facility."

Skoney's son, now in eighth grade, will move on to high school in September. She's not sure where her daughter, who is in third grade, will go if St. Edmund closes.

The diocese has tried to keep Catholic education available by moving toward a regional model in places like North Tonawanda, Lockport, Jamestown and South Buffalo.

"The kids made a beautiful transition from Day One. We as adults had a harder time letting go," said Delores Oakes, principal of Trinity Catholic Academy, which formed in 2004 out of the merger of three parish schools in South Buffalo.

Parents sometimes worry about Trinity's future, given all the changes facing the diocese, but Oakes predicts the school will be around for a long time.

"We are probably more sensitive to the pain [of school closings]. We've been there," said Oakes, who had been principal of St. Agatha School. "When you've gone through it, I don't know that it ever totally leaves you."

If St. Edmund closes, St. Christopher School would be the closest option for many families.

But Susan Skoney isn't enthused. St. Christopher, with 484 pupils, is much larger, and she's afraid her daughter will get lost in the shuffle.

A larger, more regional Catholic school, she said, is "going to be no different than a public school, except that you pay tuition and wear a uniform."


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