The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo's most intensive pruning of elementary schools to date will mean fewer options for parents and the loss of some of the area's highest-achieving programs. But diocesan officials said Saturday the 14 schools they plan to close in June were hemorrhaging pupils and costing the parishes far too much money.
"As hard as this has been, it is a necessary step to fix what is not currently viable," said Diane Vigrass, the diocese's superintendent of schools.
A day after letters showed up in the mailboxes of parents of children attending Catholic schools, the diocese confirmed the plan to close 14 schools: St. Agnes, St. Bernard and St. Rose of Lima in Buffalo; Kolbe Catholic School, Resurrection, St. Barnabas, St. Josaphat, Infant of Prague and St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Cheektowaga; St. Edmund and Blessed Sacrament in the Town of Tonawanda; Most Precious Blood in Angola; St. Hyacinth in Dunkirk; and Genesee-Wyoming Catholic Central in Attica.
Never before has the diocese proposed closing so many elementary schools at a single time.
If enrollment doesn't turn around at other schools, more shutdowns are possible next year, diocesan officials acknowledged.
"It's my hope that next year, two years from now, we will have stabilized. Certainly that is our goal," said Denise McKenzie, secretary of Catholic education.
Amid tears and disappointment, some parents are holding out hope of keeping their schools going.
Friday, members of St. Agnes Church began selling T-shirts and bumper stickers that read "S.O.S. Save Our School."
Families from St. Agnes plan to meet with those from St. Bernard and St. Josaphat to draft a plan that would consolidate their closed schools into one.
A member of the St. Rose of Lima parish council called for "open, public hearings" before the diocese's Strategic Planning Commission so schools could argue to stay open.
But diocesan officials said they gave the schools three years, ample time to turn around their enrollment slides and dismal finances.
"The diocese has done everything [it] can do to help them shape up," said Deborah Brown of Lockport, a member of the planning commission that reviewed the school closings.
This week's announcements follow the diocese's most comprehensive analysis ever of its parishes and schools, McKenzie said.
"We took a look at everything. We have reams of numbers and statistics," she said.
In the end, those numbers told a tragic story.
Collectively, the schools amassed debts of $3.4 million. Their average enrollment this year is 87 pupils, with some schools on the closing list missing entire grade levels. Their combined enrollments plummeted 41 percent in five years.
What the numbers don't convey is the emotional loss of the beloved schools, including the oldest, St. Agnes, which dates to 1885.
And some other data -- state testing scores -- make a compelling case for at least some of the schools to stay open, some parents maintained.
On the most recent state-administered eighth-grade math tests, a greater percentage of pupils -- 95 percent -- passed at St. Josaphat than at any public schools and all but two other Catholic schools in Erie County. On the most recent state math and English exams, 100 percent of fourth-graders passed at St. Barnabas and St. Edmund, a rate matched by only four other schools in the county.
Academics were factored into the closing decisions, but "you can't run a school with no money, even if it is a good school," McKenzie said.
Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said he empathized with the pain of parents and pupils.
He noted that nearly every Catholic school he attended -- his elementary school and high school in New Jersey and two seminaries -- has since closed.
"I hope people can see it as something like, you might have to move from your old house to your new house," he said.
Parishioners now worry that the closings, which will reduce the number of Catholic schools from 194 in 1960 to 56 next fall, will leave their churches ripe for shutdown, as well.
"If the school closes, my house is up for sale," said Jody Strobele, whose daughter is in fifth grade at St. Agnes. "If the families are moving, they're going to be parishioners elsewhere, and there goes the church."