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Diocese planning 14 school closings Effort seeks to ensure long-term viability

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo will close 14 elementary schools in June -- its most dramatic and controversial effort to staunch enrollment declines and ensure the long-term viability of Catholic education in Western New York.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec is expected to announce the closings this morning at a news conference in the Catholic Center.

The closures were spread among four municipalities in Erie County, as well as Dunkirk and Attica.

They are: 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.

Parents of children in most of the schools received letters from Kmiec explaining the need for the closures.

The letters arrived by mail on Friday, although some parents were informed earlier, either by school officials or from letters sent home with children.

Word of the closures was met with shock, and in some cases, outrage by parents and parishioners.

"It was an inside job. It was a setup. There was no input solicited from the parish," said Craig Speers, vice president of the parish council of St. Rose of Lima Church. "I'm just disgruntled by the whole thing. The whole process is completely skewed."

Diocesan officials declined comment on the closings until today.

Francine Young read the disappointing news as soon as the mail arrived at her City of Tonawanda home Friday afternoon.

Young has a son and daughter enrolled at St. Edmund School in the Town of Tonawanda.

"The school is the most amazing, well kept secret in the country," she said. "I can't explain it. You have to experience it to know it."

Young choked back tears as she read the letter from Kmiec.

"We're brokenhearted," she said. "I don't know what we could have done [to save the school]. But I know this: We were a perfectly viable school."

In his letter, Kmiec explained that schools struggled to meet "most or all" of the diocese's criteria for viability.

The diocese made its decisions based upon "extensive research and planning," the bishop also wrote.

In some cases, he acknowledged, the decision was not the choice of the principal and pastor at the school.

Hardest hit were the East Side and Cheektowaga, former strongholds of Catholicism that will lose eight schools.

Becky Kurdziel, who has a fourth-grader and a first-grader at St. Bernard, held out hope that a proposal to consolidate St. Bernard, St. Agnes and St. Josaphat would get traction and be housed at the St. Bernard site, under a new name, Pope John Paul II School.

Instead, none of the schools will survive.

"My son balled his eyes out yesterday," said Kurdziel. "We were hoping for the best, prepared for the worst."

Although some parents were surprised by the letters, the diocese warned the schools more than two years ago that they needed to boost enrollments and shore up their finances. Most were on an "at risk" list for the past three years.

All of the 14 schools have current enrollments of fewer than 170 pupils, and several of them have fewer than 100 pupils.

Catholic school closings have become a regular annual announcement in recent years, but this year's cuts are the most drastic.

Catholic elementary schools lost a quarter of their enrollment between 1996 and 2006 -- a trend that led to closing a dozen schools during that span.

The outlook for future enrollment isn't bright, either. Infant baptisms in the diocese declined 10 percent between 2005 and 2006, diocesan officials have noted.

They also pointed out that some parishes are using as much as 80 percent of their Sunday collections to support schools, to the detriment of other ministries.

In addition, the diocese has extended to schools and parishes more than $2 million in emergency aid over the past two years to cover salaries and other expenses -- assistance that has contributed to the diocese's current deficit budget of $2.1 million.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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