Buffalo diocese to close 10 of its Erie County schools - The Buffalo News
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Buffalo diocese to close 10 of its Erie County schools

Ten suburban Catholic elementary schools suffering from low enrollments and struggling with finances will close in June, Bishop Richard J. Malone announced today.

Many of the schools to be closed are in the Southtowns. No Catholic schools in Buffalo will be closed.

Diocesan officials ended months of speculation today about what buildings would be on a closure list as part of a sweeping plan to revitalize Catholic education in Western New York.

Schools on the closure list are: Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Vincent de Paul in Elma; Fourteen Holy Helpers in West Seneca; Our Lady of Pompeii in Lancaster; Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and St. Bernadette in Orchard Park; St. Francis of Assisi in the City of Tonawanda; St. Joseph in Gowanda; St. Leo the Great in Amherst; and St. Mary of the Lake in Hamburg.

The closings will reduce to 41 the number of Catholic elementary schools in the eight counties of the diocese – down from 86 a decade ago.

At the news conference Wednesday afternoon at the Catholic Center, Malone said, “This is an important responsibility I bear as bishop, but carefully planned change, I have come to believe – this the only way to go.”

Malone urged parents to keep their children in diocesan schools.

“If their children enroll in another school,” he said, “they will continue to receive the parishioner rate.”

Carol Kostyniak, the diocese’s secretary for Catholic education, said at the news conference that the closure process has been “intense, data-driven and as inclusive as possible.”

The diocese’s focus “must be on our students,” she said, adding that the schools must adapt. She pointed to slower economic growth, demographic change, fewer households, aging populations and changing family structures as factors spurring the closures.

“We are closing and consolidating buildings, but the revitalization plan is truly about making Catholic schools stronger,” Kostyniak said.

Across Erie County, enrollment in kindergarten through eighth grade in Catholic schools fell by 5,711 students, or 41 percent, between 2003 and 2013. Nearly two-thirds of the schools enrolled 200 or fewer students. Enrollments at six schools shrunk by more than half over that time – even as more than two dozen other Catholic schools closed.

Despite those prior closings, diocesan officials said there were still too many school buildings operating below capacity and parishes spending beyond their means on elementary schools.

Enrollments at the 10 schools on the closure list ranged from 42 students at St. Joseph School to 152 students at St. Francis of Assisi.

Five of the schools have fewer than 125 students.

Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic schools, said at the conference: “Our Catholic schools are being strengthened, re-energized and brought up to date for a new generation of youngsters.”

Cimino said that the diocese would not be accepting transfers this school year and that those would begin next year.

Kostyniak said, “I would like to say everyone teacher will have a job,” but that she knows that is not reality. The diocese is working with its human resources department and attorneys to look at staffing. She estimated that 195 or so jobs would be affected – including staff, teachers and administrators. Some could be through retirements.

Malone acknowledged the “terrible sense of loss and the pain” among families affected.

“I hope people will be able to understand – as painful as this is, we’re doing this out of concern to keep Catholic education strong,” the bishop said.

Diocese officials met this morning with principals and pastors from the affected schools. Many parents then were informed by phone calls from the schools or letters sent home with students. Others were alerted through social media sites such as Facebook.

Despite the closings, Catholic education will continue to be a “primary ministry” of the Buffalo diocese, and nearby schools that are staying open will be able to accommodate all students from closed buildings, Malone said.

“This will be a difficult decision for many to accept, but these reductions are necessary and will allow us to sustain and eventually strengthen our remaining Catholic elementary schools,” Malone said.

West Seneca parent Heather Frys received an automated telephone call at 12:45 p.m. revealing that Fourteen Holy Helpers was among the closed schools.

“It’s very sad, very depressing. Fourteen Holy helpers is a family community. We are very tight knit, and we are worried about the separation of our community,” said Frys, who has a son in fourth grade at the school.

Many children cried upon word of the closing, she added.

“It’s non-stop flowing tears. They’re sad because they know they’re not going to be at the same school with the friends they’ve grown up with,” said Frys.

The plan unveiled this afternoon after months of data analysis by school officials and meetings among pastors and principals did not include the closing of any of the four elementary schools within the City of Buffalo.

The diocese is collaborating with the BISON Fund, a private scholarship foundation, on a plan to fund new scholarships for Buffalo public school students who have applied to transfer out of low-performing city schools. Malone said if the idea comes to fruition, it could increase enrollment in city Catholic schools.

The plan also keeps open five of six Catholic schools in Amherst and four of five schools in the Town of Tonawanda.

The prospect of a restructuring and consolidation of schools has been on the table since 2011, when a study found that area Catholic schools competed fiercely against each other for a rapidly shrinking pool of potential students.

The diocese began moving forward on a restructure following the hiring last June of Cimino as superintendent of Catholic schools.

This past fall, pastors and principals met for months in one of nine “clusters” to discuss how to reconfigure buildings, share resources and upgrade programs in their respective geographic areas.

The clusters submitted their ideas to Kostyniak and Cimino, who analyzed them and provided recommendations to Malone. The bishop had the final say.

The schools slated to stay open will now be expected to transition into “community schools,” governed by lay advisory boards of limited jurisdiction that will work with pastors on budgeting, administrative hiring and evaluation and other school operations.

Malone again pushed for the state legislature to approve the Education Investment Tax Credit bill.

The diocese, he said, might not have to be closing so many schools if the bill had become law.

As proposed now, it would allow a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit for any person or business that makes a donation to private scholarships or public schools, as well as a state tax credit for individuals making direct contributions to local education funds that support a school of school district or to nonprofit organizations that provide education scholarships.

“Our Catholic school families support public schools in the taxes they pay and the millions of dollars in savings that accrues to New York State by these families educating their children in our Catholic schools,” he said. “These families deserve help from their representatives in Albany, and the tax credit bill is the way to do that.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com and djgee@buffnews.com

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