Nearly three months after the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo announced that it would close 10 of its elementary schools in Western New York at the end of the school year, families from some of the affected schools are still fighting to have their voices heard.
Sunday afternoon, about 120 parents, grandparents and teachers, along with about the same number of children, held what they called a “prayerful rally” on the front lawn of the church-owned mansion on Oakland Place that is home to Bishop Richard J. Malone. While reciting the rosary and offering other prayers, members of the group repeated their message: They want a seat at the table to help find a way to keep their schools open.
“We consider these schools an important part of the feeder system for the Catholic high schools and colleges,” said Greg Herzog, whose sons attend St. Mary of the Lake School in Hamburg. “We want to have a constructive discussion on how we can help grow the faith in the community. Closing schools doesn’t help grow faith. When they close schools and expect children to transfer, over time, the attrition rate is close to 60 percent.”
Other parents repeated their firm belief that keeping their community schools open was important to them and to the survival of their parishes .
‘Now … no school’
The diocese refers to the school closing as a “revitalization process,” a term the parents challenged vigorously.
“How can this be revitalizing?” asked Ren Choroser, who was representing families from St. Bernadette School in Orchard Park. She criticized the notion that any attrition of students from Catholic schools to public schools was acceptable.
Marlene Lamparelli, who has three children at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Elma, was one of several parents who was advocating that the diocese allow a merger between their school and St. Vincent de Paul School.
“There are three healthy parishes in Elma, and now we have no school,” she said.
They said the school also draws students from the surrounding rural communities and even western Wyoming County, which has no Catholic elementary school.
Many parents were critical of an article in the April edition of the Western New York Catholic newspaper, in which the diocese responded to “frequently asked questions” from the many calls, emails and letters that it has received since the school closings were announced. There was a feeling that the answers sidestepped many of their most important concerns – including what they felt was a lack of parent representation during the decision-making.
“The parents were not allowed to speak,” Choroser said. “As it said, we were told to speak to ‘pastors and principals’ and leave it to them.”
There was an irony for parents who read that article, since in the same issue of the paper, there is a story about the bishop’s Commission for Promotion of the New Evangelization. Its purpose, the story said, is “to engage and re-engage Catholics who may have fallen away from the Church,” and suggests an important way to do that is to strengthen the parish community beyond Sunday Mass, including enrolling children in the neighborhood school.
Not all of the closing schools had large delegations on the bishop’s lawn Sunday. The two Southtowns schools – St. Bernadette and St. Mary – and the schools in Elma that hope to merge were joined by a contingent from St. Francis of Assisi School in the City of Tonawanda.
Parents there have been among the most vocal about the shuttering of their school – open since the late 1800s and the biggest on the closing list. It is the last Catholic elementary school in the Twin Cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda and, according to its representatives, one of the most affordable, with tuition of about $2,100 a year and 37 percent of its students receiving tuition assistance.
“We serve a whole different kind of community,” said Mary Knoerl, music director at the school. “We’re like a regional school – our population is very different from the other schools.”
Diocese gives response
The other schools being closed are St. Leo the Great in Amherst, Our Lady of Pompeii in Lancaster, Fourteen Holy Helpers in West Seneca, Our Lady of the Scared Heart in Orchard Park and St. Joseph in Gowanda.
The diocese responded to the prayer rally later in the afternoon at its office. Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese, reiterated that the decisions on the closings were painful for the church leadership, as well as for the families involved.
“This is not a newborn idea – of closing our schools; of ‘rightsizing’ our schools,” she said. “It began in 2007 with the Journey of Faith and Grace (when then-Bishop Edward U. Kmiec announced the closing of 14 elementary schools).”
She disputed the assertion by some parents that parish money that now goes to support their schools will be funneled back to the diocese.
“There is no financial gain for the diocese,” she said emphatically.
“Every single school charges less in tuition than it costs. The parishes are making up that difference, and that subsidy will follow the children to whatever school they go to.”
Merger not an option
Any endowments, such as the $500,000 that St. Francis has to support its students, also will be used to help the parish’s children, Cimino said, assuming the children remain in Catholic schools.
She added that the low tuition at some schools contributed to the decision to close them.
“The parish subsidies were too high in some cases, so the churches couldn’t support other missions,” she said. “And sometimes that cost was being borne on the back of the teachers. One school was paying some of its teachers less than $20,000.”
Cimino added that the teachers were not complaining about their salaries. “They, like all of our teachers, consider their work a ministry. That’s why they do it.”
She also said that the parents’ proposal to merge the two Elma schools wouldn’t solve the problem of enrollment in the long run.
“We can merge schools until the cows come home, but you cannot tell parents where to send their children,” she said.
Pointing to a folder nearly 4 inches thick, Cimino said the diocese had reviewed reams of data about enrollment, baptisms, membership and population density before announcing which schools would close, and that the decisions would not be reversed.
“I also want to say we worked very hard and had hoped for a tuition tax credit – it would have amounted to $150 million statewide – and it didn’t happen,” she said. “Had we gotten that, we wouldn’t be in this position, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”