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Niagara Catholic High School closes, citing budget cuts

Niagara Catholic Junior-Senior High School is closing, bringing to an end nearly a century of Catholic secondary education in Niagara Falls.

The school's board of trustees voted Tuesday to close the school, whose enrollment had been slowly declining for more than 20 years.

Judith Nolan Powell, the president of the board of trustees, said the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which subsidized about 10 percent of the school's budget, told her in May that it was eliminating that subsidy because of its own financial challenges. She appealed the decision but learned last week that no money would be coming from Buffalo.

"The news came so quickly, so unexpectedly and at the end of the school year," Nolan Powell said.

Diocesan spokesman George Richert said the diocese is also eliminating subsidies for five other private Catholic high schools: Timon-St. Jude in Buffalo, Cardinal O'Hara in the Town of Tonawanda, St. Mary's in Lancaster, Notre Dame in Batavia and Archbishop Walsh in Olean.

Richert said expected expenses related to compensating victims of sexual abuse involving priests is only one factor behind the cutbacks.

"That is only one of many other factors, including a steady decline in parish collections and a decline in Catholic school enrollment over the last several years," Richert said.

There are 34 other Catholic schools run directly by the diocese, which are not affected by the cuts.

At Niagara Catholic, Nolan Powell said the school might have tried to cut its budget had school administrators learned about the cut sooner – but that would have come with a price, too.

"Making draconian cuts would just weaken the product," Nolan Powell said.

School administrators planned to inform staff and parents of the closure Wednesday afternoon.

The board also rejected the notion of keeping the school open and hoping for the best.

"One thing we were not going to do is open on a wing and a prayer and get to November or March and close in the middle of the school year. This is a bad situation, but that would have been horrid," Nolan Powell said.

She said the diocese does not bear the complete responsibility for the closure.

"It's the economy in Niagara Falls. It's a lot of factors. It's not just the diocese," Nolan Powell said.

Only 121 students were signed up for the 2018-19 school year, she said. Tuition, which was nearly $9,000 a year, was Niagara Catholic's main revenue source, but that income was falling in concert with enrollment.

"These parents have made such financial sacrifices. Our hearts are breaking," Nolan Powell said.

Richert said Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls, an elementary school, is adding seventh and eighth grade classes this year, which provides another option for Niagara Catholic's junior high students.

Although the Diocese of Buffalo owns the school building, since its founding in 1975, the school has operated independently as one of six private Catholic schools in Western New York.

It was the only private high school in Niagara County.

Mark Laurrie, the superintendent of public schools in Niagara Falls, said he received word from Niagara Catholic about the closure Wednesday morning.

"Really sad to hear that," he said. "I think Niagara Catholic, and Bishop Duffy before that, was a great institution in this city. Having a parochial-public choice in the city was a great thing."

Laurrie said he's reaching out to Niagara Catholic's staff and students.

"We need certified substitutes – I can't promise anybody a job – and we're interested in their students, too. We'll do a good job for them," Laurrie said. "I would like to look at that building. This is very premature, but we need more space for vocational education in the city."

Niagara Falls received its first Catholic high school in 1927, when St. Mary's High School, a co-educational facility, opened on Fourth Street, across from St. Mary of the Cataract Church.

In 1946 came the opening of all-boys Bishop Duffy High School, and St. Mary's became an all-girls school.

Duffy started on the third floor of Holy Trinity School on East Falls Street, but moved to Niagara Falls Boulevard in 1947 and to a new building on 66th Street in 1955.

St. Mary's closed in 1959 and was replaced by Madonna High School, a newly built all-girls school on 66th Street near Duffy.

Duffy and Madonna merged in 1975 as Niagara Catholic, using the Duffy building.

The Madonna building was acquired by the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which reopened it as Niagara Middle School in 1995. It became Cataract Elementary School in 2007.

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