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After decades, a sad ending<br> Closing of North Tonawanda Catholic leaves city with no school like it

Emotions run raw these days among teachers, students and parents at North Tonawanda Catholic School, which is scheduled to lock its doors permanently Tuesday due to declining enrollment and financial challenges.

The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo made the decision last month, leaving 75 students registered for the fall in kindergarten through eighth grade without a school, 23 employees without a job and the City of North Tonawanda without a Catholic school.

"Enough wasn't done," said Colleen Koszelak, a mother of three students at the school. "It's stressful because it's hanging over our heads where our kids are going to go. It's frustrating because of how we learned it was closing."

The school closes its year with a budget deficit of $105,000, said Kevin A. Keenan, director of communication for the diocese.

The diocese subsidized tuition by $3,700 per student for this school year and provided emergency funding to ensure that teachers could receive their salaries.

About $30,000 in student tuition remains unpaid.

"The parents who were at the school did a tremendous job in trying to sustain the operation," Keenan said. "At the end of day, there are not enough students there to keep the school operating."

North Tonawanda Catholic was established in 1990, with an enrollment of 400, when Ascension and St. Joseph schools merged.

Enrollment dropped from 277 five years ago to 91 currently, North Tonawanda Catholic Principal Martha J. Eadie said.

Eadie included a weekly blurb to parents in the school's newsletter about the need to reach enrollment benchmarks by April 30. That didn't happen.

Several parents said they were caught off-guard when they learned of the closing from a newscast. They said that it was a week before formal word came from the school.

"I was bummed because I've gone ever since kindergarten," said 12-year-old Chris Richards. "It's a big loss."

Chris has played basketball, baseball and volleyball for the school.

Jack Akins and Michael Miller, both 10, cried when they found out. They'll miss their teachers the most, they said.

"Our students will do great because they did get such a good education here," said Carol Anderson, who has taught at the school for eight years. "I'm not worried about them. But I feel bad for them. They're heartbroken."

The decision to close the school comes during troubling economic times that also have forced the city's public school district to make difficult decisions. The district -- among those across the state that expect less state aid to be available starting in the next school year -- announced that it will close Grant School after this school year. Officials estimate that the savings to the district in staffing and utility expenses will be $206,000.

Enrollment in a Catholic school is important to many of the North Tonawanda Catholic School parents, who are considering options including St. Francis of Assisi Elementary in the City of Tonawanda and St. Andrew Country Day School in the Town of Tonawanda. Many of the parents hope to place children in the same school where their friends go.

"When you lose a school like this, friends get disconnected," said Angelo Genco, whose 13-year-old daughter is enrolled at the school. "Hopefully that won't happen."

The diocese offers $500 in tuition assistance to currently enrolled families who transfer their students to another Catholic school.

Five teachers decided to retire after the school closes, Eadie said, and the rest are seeking other employment.

Joanna Anderson has taught at North Tonawanda Catholic and its predecessor for 24 years and has been a part of the Catholic school system for 37 years.

"It's very hard saying goodbye," Anderson said. "Finding a job will be even more difficult."

Eadie secured a job as principal of Our Lady of Black Rock in Buffalo for the fall.

"I believe if I had more time, things could have been different," she said. "I saw a lot of things going in the right direction. Time wasn't on my side."


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