By Claire Walla
Catholic education on the East End has been caught in the crosshairs.
Stella Maris — the only Catholic grade school servicing an area from Bridgehampton to Montauk — faces a deficit that has put the school’s future in question.
Last Wednesday, April 20 the Superintendent of Catholic Schools on Long Island Sister Joanne Callahan visited Stella Maris to explain the school’s financial situation in full.
All members of the media had been asked to leave before discussions got underway. But, according to parents present at the meeting, Sister Joanne stated that the diocese had been aware of the school’s deficit, which jumped from $35,000 in 2008 to $97,000 in 2009 before rising sharply to hit $381,000 by June of last year.
Stella Maris is currently facing a deficit that the diocese projects will reach nearly half-a-million dollars by August 2011.
However, Sister Joanne reportedly said parents will only have to come up with $116,250 of that total in order to keep the school open next year. (About $381,000 of the school’s debt comes from benefit and pension costs, which the diocese will not require the school to pay-off right away.)
The problem, as far as parent Jennifer Fowkes is concerned, is that the diocese’s austerity budget for 2011-12 doesn’t include plans to address that $381,000, nor has the organization made efforts to enforce financial reform.
“The diocese didn’t seem to be interested in making any changes going forward,” Fowkes said.
When asked earlier this week whether or not Stella Maris would be required to restructure its financial oversight, the diocese’s Director of Communications Sean Dolan said the Stella Maris school board “is looking into that.”
Some parents, like current Parents’ Association President Carrie Saar, wonder why — in the wake of financial troubles — the school has been barred from dipping to its endowment fund.
The fund, which is overseen by Father Don Hanson of Most Holy Trinity Parish in East Hampton, reportedly held over $1 million at its apex. However, when reached last week, Father Don said he wasn’t sure exactly how much money is currently in the account, estimating it to be “under $1 million.”
While Stella Maris currently collects interest on the account each year, for three years the school was allowed to dip into the principal to off-set rising costs. However, Father Don said that practice has been halted this year.
He referred all further questions to Dolan.
At a meeting on Tuesday, April 12 — when parents first learned of the school’s financial woes — Saar said she asked whether or not the principal could be released to save the school.
“I didn’t get an answer,” she said. “I followed up with an email to Msgr. Hanson, as well as the diocese, and still haven’t gotten an answer.”
Dolan responded to repeated phone calls via email Wednesday evening to say that information on the endowment was “unavailable as of press time.”
“If the school closes its doors, the money in that endowment will go to Most Holy Trinity parish,” Saar continued, adding that the $381,000 in additional debt will ultimately fall back on the five parishes. “Will Most Holy Trinity then be able to use the endowment money [to pay its portion of the debt], but not to save the school?”
PARENTS FIGHT FOR A FUTURE
“Are there financial issues? Yes, definitely,” admitted Stella Maris parent Elizabeth Linker. “But they’re not issues [the school] can’t overcome. What [Sister Joanne] wants to see is parents pulling together as a force.”
According to Sister Joanne’s presentation last week, 42 students have already registered at Our Lady of the Hamptons School in Southampton. Though registration numbers are not a firm indication of next year’s enrollment numbers, it is a troubling sign for parents trying to keep the school’s K-8 enrollment at 102 for the 2011-12 school year, as the diocese has required. (Currently, the schools K-8 enrollment sits at 127.)
“I don’t believe money’s the issue,” said parent Jean Cowen, a former public school teacher who taught fourth grade at Stella Maris on an interim basis until last week. “It’s the enrollment. Who’s going to enroll in a school they think is closing?”
Along with other Stella Maris parents, Cowen is working hard to rally the community to step-up donations for the school. She recently announced a 50/50 raffle, which will take place May 13 (tickets are $10 each), in addition to tentative plans for a 5K run in June and a golf outing slated for the end of the summer.
In an interview, Cowen said she is also looking into the idea of creating sponsorships for students, whereby members of the community will pay tuition for those students’ whose families are unable to afford it on their own.
“I think there are a lot of parishioners and wealthy Catholics who are able to donate to our cause,” she added. “Those parents who can pay more, should.”
PROBLEMS GOING FORWARD
For others, it’s not that simple.
During last Wednesday’s meeting, a group of parents told members of the diocese they were willing to give $200,000 to save the school, providing certain conditions be met.
“For an enterprise to be successful, you have to have a board with the aptitude and the interest to [govern] appropriately,” said former five-year school board member Mike Taglich, who left the board last May when the organization’s bylaws were restructured to impose three-year term limits for lay members on the board.
The executive members of the school board, which is headed by Father Mike Reider of Montauk, “are responsible for the school’s finances,” Dolan explained. Though some say Principal Janie Peters essentially acts as the school’s chief financial officer, Dolan added “this is not about the principal.”
According to Taglich, the executive board members “have the ultimate responsibility, collectively, for the school and for the situation the school is in today,” he added.
The board needs to be governed by members who are “emotionally committed” to Stella Maris’ success, and have the time and the will to ensure the school avoids financial strife in the future, he added.
Ultimately, Taglich said his frustration stems from the fact that Stella Maris is a great school that has provided his children with a stellar education.
“If parents understood the difference that an education at Stella Maris would mean for their child, the school would be full and there would be no issues,” he said.
Both he and Fowkes are planning to send their children to O.L.H. next year.
“It is killing me to have to take my kids from this school,” Fowkes continued. “I’m losing sleep, I don’t know if it’s the right decision. But, at this point, I don’t have any answers about what the school will look like next year.”