By Claire Walla
Moments before an “urgent” meeting took place at Stella Maris Regional School last Tuesday at 7 p.m., parents and teachers were informed that the school’s principal, Jane FitzGerald Peters had resigned. They soon learned the school is facing what the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which overseas the Catholic school, estimates to be a $480,000 deficit, which will need to be addressed in order for the school to remain in operation for the 2011-12 school year.
“I think the parents and the teachers are feeling blindsided — absolutely blindsided,” said parent Suzanne Wilutis, one of three school board members who resigned last week in the wake of last week’s announcement.
According to Sean Dolan, a media spokesperson for the Diocese in Rockville Center, Stella Maris owes about $300,000 to the Diocese for insurance costs, though this debt “is being put on hold” while the school works to pay off the rest of what it owes. Dolan said the school has racked up about $180,000 in deficit spending, which he attributes in large part to low enrollment numbers this year. Last year, there were 222 students at the school — currently there are 187 in grades nursery through eighth.
“A 16-percent decline in enrollment in one year, that’s a problem, no doubt about it,” Dolan said. ”I’ve [also] heard that there have been uncollected [monies] for various reasons,” including tuition.
“It’s nothing new,” he continued, adding that this is an issue all schools in the Diocese have had to deal with. But for a school with such low enrollment numbers, every student counts, he added.
The Diocese itself will give the school $90,000 both this year and next to help balance the school’s budget. He said Stella Maris parents have already raised $50,000 of what board member Reverend Michael J. Reider called “financial promises,” which — with the Diocese’s financial contribution this year — would bring the total amount parents must raise to $40,000 by August 31 if the school is to open next fall.
“So you’re getting there, but there are still next year’s problems,” Dolan continued. “The future of the school is on the line.”
The Diocese has appealed to Stella Maris parents to raise the funds to keep the school in operation. But for some, the solution is not that clear-cut.
“There are a lot of misstatements,” said parent Jennifer Fowkes. ”The Diocese is putting the onus on the parents. But the situation that we’re in is because of mismanagement. It’s not because of the economy, or declining enrollment.”
This week, the Diocese laid-out an austerity budget for next year to address the issue of the school’s decreased funds. In addition to combining the fifth and sixth grades, as well as the seventh and eighth grades, the Diocese will require the school to keep its total enrollment at or above 102.
“This could have been avoided if there had been greater fiscal discipline on the part of the administration and greater oversight on the part of the school board,” added Wilutis, who had just joined the board this past January. “The parents and the faculty did not learn about the debt until last Tuesday. I do not know why they weren’t informed earlier.”
While Dolan said “the financial condition of the school was known by the Diocese,” he said he couldn’t speak to why parents weren’t informed of the school’s finances at an earlier date.
“I don’t have information to refute or dispute that,” he stated.
Dolan explained that Stella Maris is operated on a regional level, which means that the Diocese is only responsible for overseeing and guiding the school’s academic principals; all financial decisions are made by the principal — who oversees both the school’s academics and finances — as well as the school board, which, as of last week, has been reduced to its four executive members, each a priest from one of the school’s five neighboring parishes in Sag Harbor, Montauk, Shelter Island, East Hampton and Bridgehampton. (Members of the public are not privy to the board’s financial information.)
Board member Father Peter Devaraj of St. Andrews Church in Sag Harbor did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment, and Father Don Hanson of Most Holy Trinity (MHT) in East Hampton referred all calls to Dolan at the Diocese. (As did Principal Peters.)
“The Diocese is not in a position to bail-out the school,” Dolan explained. “Ultimately, parents will need to work together. There have been personal differences,” he noted, but if the school is to continue, “parents need to set aside their differences.”
Keeping the School Open
Over the years, Sag Harbor’s Diane Bucking said she and her husband, Phil, have twice considered taking their daughters out of Stella Maris for various reasons.
“As a parent, you have to decide whether or not your child is in the right spot,” she said.
But both times, Bucking said they decided to stay put.
“What brought us back was the caring that you feel when you’re in the hallway,” she explained. ”The school really has a family feel.”
Her daughter, Katie, a seventh grader at the school, said she couldn’t imagine leaving.
“I had the option of switching last year, but I never even considered it,” she said. “I just want to graduate from Stella Maris.”
While some parents have already made the decision to transfer to other schools, others are weighing their options as the school’s future remains in limbo.
Parent Sharon Lynch said her seventh grade daughter, Sarah-Kate, will go to public school “if Stella Maris ceases to exist as is.”
However, she hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“Obviously, it’s wishful thinking,” she added. “But I would think the Diocese would want [the school to stay open].”
Lynch added that she suspects many parents will send their kids to public school should Stella Maris close, simply because the closest Catholic school, Our Lady of the Hamptons (OLH) in Southampton, may be too far away for some families.
“It really comes down to bodies,” Lynch added. ”We just need kids.”
“We, the Buckings, are moving forward on the assumption that Stella Maris will be open next year,” Diane Bucking continued. “For us, because eighth grade at OLH is not an option, our focus is keeping the school open.”
“The parents all want the school to succeed,” Fowkes said. “But it’s not fair [to ask the parents for more money] because we’ve all paid our tuition and done an amazing amount of fundraising.”
Both Fowkes and Wilutis agree that Stella Maris can and should survive this challenge.
But it will take some change.
Wilutis continued, “A first and crucial step will be to establish leadership — in the administration and the school board — that will regain the confidence of the parents in the school community.”