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Catholic pupils left needing ride to school

As the era of neighborhood Catholic schools comes to an end, some Buffalo parents are wondering how they will get their kids to classes next fall.

Pupils who walk to schools such as St. Agnes in Lovejoy and St. Bernard in Kaisertown will now need a ride to the nearest remaining Catholic schools in Cheektowaga, West Seneca, South Buffalo and the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

But unlike most suburban school districts, the Buffalo district doesn't provide school buses for elementary pupils attending Catholic schools.

St. Agnes and St. Bernard are among 14 schools slated to close in June.

Parents at those schools received letters from Bishop Edward U. Kmiec suggesting that they transfer their children to St. Stanislaus School in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood or schools in nearby South Buffalo, West Seneca or Cheektowaga.

William Falkowski hopes to continue sending his son and daughter to a Catholic school, but he's not sure whether it will work out.

"How can I choose a school if there's no guarantee of any transportation?" he said.

Catholic schools will be hosting open houses for new pupils over the next few weeks.

Falkowski moved into Kaisertown so his children could walk to St. Bernard School. And while Falkowski said he understands the need to shut down the school, which had low enrollment, he is not sure why the diocese didn't have a busing plan in place upon announcing the closing.

"It just boggles my mind that they didn't consider transportation issues," he said.

Likewise, at St. Agnes, "There's no other school for [pupils] to easily get to," said Gerianne Dobmeier, a teacher at the school who also lives in the Lovejoy neighborhood. "The
concern I'm hearing from the parents is, 'How do I get my children there?' "

Diocesan officials said they are working on a plan with the Buffalo Public Schools to address the transportation problems.

They presented a "doable" plan to Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams and are waiting for Williams' approval before elaborating on it, said Diane Vigrass, superintendent of Catholic schools.

The Buffalo district is under no obligation to provide busing outside the city. Inside the city, children receive a pass to ride NFTA Metro buses to Catholic schools.

Currently, some Catholic pupils in South Buffalo use a "dedicated" NFTA Metro bus, which picks them up along a regular bus route and drives them either to Notre Dame Academy or Trinity Catholic Academy.

Meanwhile, some parents were upset that their schools were slated to close, while St. Stanislaus, which has a smaller enrollment and worse test scores, will remain open.

They maintained that St. Stanislaus School and parish were not subject to closure because the pastor is Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, one of the highest-ranking priests in the diocese.

"You have the big patronage and pork over at St. Stan's, almost like you do in county government," said parent Becky Kurdziel of Buffalo. "What you want is it to be fair. Right now, it doesn't seem like it was fair."

But Grosz, who has led major renovations of St. Stan's church and school buildings the past three years, said he had no say in the decision to keep the school going.

A separate task force of diocesan officials and principals reached the final conclusions, Grosz said.

The diocese sought to keep at least one elementary school operating in the central city, said Kevin A. Keenan, diocesan spokesman.

And, while the closing schools were losing pupils year after year, St. Stan's experienced an enrollment uptick this year, growing to 102 pupils from 75 in 2005-06.

Some parents want to know how much longer schools will be open before deciding where to enroll their children.

Vigrass said there were no plans now to close more schools.

"We're close to being the system we need to be for the population we have," she said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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