Diocesan officials point to data in defending school closings - The Buffalo News
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Diocesan officials point to data in defending school closings

Every Catholic elementary school in the Diocese of Buffalo was put on guard about their futures for the past several months, as diocesan school officials sifted through mountains of data. Diocesan officials looked at the number of infant baptisms, women of child-bearing age, parish collections, demographic trends, and so on, as they tried to determine which schools to keep open and which ones to close.

But in the end, as with past closures, it is primarily the schools with the smallest enrollments, shakiest finances and weakest prospects for recovery that will end up closed.

Diocesan officials announced Wednesday that 10 suburban elementary schools will be shut down in June: 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 affect 1,154 students and 195 teachers and staff.

The schools have an average enrollment of just 115 students – only slightly higher than the average enrollments of schools closed in the past 10 years.

At the same time, some schools with dwindling enrollments and close proximity to other schools were spared. St. Leo is the only school in Amherst that will be closed. Four other Catholic schools within a two-mile radius of each other will remain open.

“I think in the end, we were very conservative, and we needed to be,” said Carol A. Kostyniak, diocesan secretary for education.

More schools could have been closed, and a committee looking at a “mindboggling” amount of data recommended a few other closures, Kostyniak said.

Bishop Richard J. Malone, who made the final decision, preferred keeping as many schools as possible open, she said.

But even Malone acknowledged the statistical weight in favor of the closures announced Wednesday was overwhelming.

“It came down to hard, cold facts about what we can do and what we can’t,” said Malone.

Added Kostyniak: “We’re closing about 20 percent of our buildings, and they involve only 10 percent of our student population, so you can see right there, they’re not full.”

But some parents questioned the decisions.

Julie Blanchard, president of the home school association at St. Francis of Assisi School in the City of Tonawanda, said she felt “a little blindsided” by the decision to close the school.

With 152 students, St. Francis of Assisi is the biggest school on the closing list.

“I’m surprised,” Blanchard said. “I believe that we have had the most growth over the last 10 years compared to all the other schools except for St. Mark’s.”

Just 98 students attended the school in the 2003-04 school year. This year the school has 54 more students than it had 10 years ago.

People at St. Francis of Assisi speculated that one of two Catholic schools in the Town of Tonawanda – St. John the Baptist or St. Andrew’s Country Day – would close.

“Honestly, I believed, we all believed, we had the growth,” she said.

Enrollment at St. Andrew’s Country Day School fell by 296 between the 2003-04 and 2012-13 school years. St. John the Baptist’s enrollment fell by 188.

“We are so close to meeting our benchmarks,” she said. “We are right there.”

“St. Andrew’s lost a tremendous amount of students,” she said.

“They are on top of each other,” she said of the two other schools. “We’re the only school in the Twin Cities. We serve a poor community. I honestly believed in my heart we’d stay open.”

“We have two school buildings on our campus. A former school building is used as the St. Clare Center.

“We could accommodate another 200 students. We could accommodate 400 between the two buildings,” she said.

Diocesan officials had tried to steer pastors and principals to develop plans that would lead to ideal school sizes of about 400 students, roughly two classes of 20 to 25 students at each grade level.

As it turned out, many of the schools with the strongest financial footing don’t have buildings that can accommodate 400 students.

“Some of our buildings don’t hold more than 200 kids. We have a large number of those buildings,” Kostyniak said.

Building size alone would not have been enough of a reason to keep a school open, she added.

“We looked at the demographics,” she said. “We looked at where the potential for children are and at where is the new housing. That all went into it.”

At Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Elma, parishioners presented their own data and information to the diocese to explain why they felt the school should stay open, said the Rev. Gene Ulrich, pastor.

“We were all engaged in trying to point out that we had the facility, the financial means, the personnel, the ability, the passion, to keep our school open,” he said. “We’re a small school, and I know numbers are numbers, but we have had, in the past five years, increases in the numbers most of those years.”

The school experienced a 32 percent increase in enrollment over the last five years, and the parish invested $350,000 in the school building, including a new gym floor and updated technology, Ulrich said.

“So we were hoping that with our commitment financially, the quality of our school, a united parish supporting the school, that the decision of the bishop would have been favorable that our school would have stayed open,” he said.

St. Vincent de Paul, the only other Catholic school in Elma, also will be closed.

But Kostyniak maintained that the “potential growth isn’t there in Elma” and that students at those schools could still be served at other Catholic schools in East Aurora, Alden, West Seneca and Orchard Park.

As in most schools, enrollment at Fourteen Holy Helpers has dipped over the years – to 142 students in 2012-13.

The declines, though, have been less precipitous than in other schools, and “as a community we were optimistic,” said Heather Frys, the mother of a fourth grader. “We were hopeful because we’ve been told we met all the criteria. If we’re looking at the stats on the wall, we should be open.”

Two other schools in a geographic cluster with Fourteen Holy Helpers – Queen of Heaven in West Seneca and St. John Vianney in Orchard Park, both of which had slightly larger enrollments– will remain open.

Kostyniak pointed out that the potential for growth was greater in the two other nearby schools than in Fourteen Holy Helpers.

St. John Vianney, for example, had 200 baptisms in the past year – a relatively high number for a Catholic parish in Western New York.

In Hamburg, the committee recommended keeping Southtowns Catholic open over nearby St. Mary of the Lake based primarily on the geography of the schools and where its students lived.

“I thought, everything considered equal, we were the logical choice along the lakefront,” said Donald Busher, president of the school advisory council for St. Mary of the Lake.

Southtowns Catholic was closer to an area of the Erie County with no other schools, whereas many of the families at St. Mary’s easily could attend Southtowns Catholic or SS. Peter & Paul in the village of Hamburg, Kostyniak said.

“We plotted the addresses of families. That’s one of the pieces that went into that decision,” Kostyniak said.

Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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