By Claire Walla
After 134 years, Stella Maris Regional School in Sag Harbor, the oldest Catholic school on Long Island, will shut its doors when the academic year comes to a close on June 22.
“We have no choice but to close our school at the end of this academic year,” Fr. Mike Rieder of St. Therese of LIsieux Parish in Montauk wrote in a letter to parents and teachers in the Stella Maris School community last Friday, May 6.
Ever since Tuesday, April 12, when teachers and parents learned from Sister Joanne Callahan (Superintendent of Education for the Diocese of Rockville Centre) of the school’s estimated $480,000 deficit, parents have been scrambling to raise the $116,250 needed by August 31 to keep the school up-and-running. Of that amount, an estimated $300,000 owed to the diocese for unpaid pension and medical-benefit costs would have been overlooked by the institution this academic year, according to the diocese.
In addition to raising funds, the school would have also needed to accept the diocese’s proposed austerity budget beginning in fall and maintain a K to 8 enrollment number of 102, a figure based on the number of students who had pre-registered for next year back in February.
As of last Tuesday, May 2 when the diocese requested all final commitment forms be handed in by parents indicating their intention to send their children to the school in the fall, enrollment was down to 44.
What Happens Now?
Those who work for the diocese — including two of the school’s executive board members, Fr. Mike and Fr. Peter Deveraj (of St. Andrews Church in Sag Harbor), and Stella Maris Principal Jane Peters — have refrained from addressing issues pertaining to the school, instead referring all inquiries to the diocesan spokesperson Sean Dolan, who has not returned multiple phone calls in the past two weeks.
However, in previous interviews Dolan said that the debt accrued by the school would be taken on by the five feeder parishes: Queen of the Holy Rosary in Bridgehampton, St. Andrews in Sag Harbor, Most Holy Trinity in East Hampton, Our Lady of the Isle on Shelter Island and St. Therese of Lisieux in Montauk.
In terms of assets, the school currently has an endowment fund, which was set-up in its name a few years ago by the late Msgr. Donald Desmond, the former pastor at Most Holy Trinity (MHT). The fund reportedly holds somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million and is now overseen by the parish’s current pastor, Fr. Don Hanson. According to former Stella Maris board members, in the wake of Stella Maris’ closure this money is believed to be absorbed by MHT.
Written statements issued by Father Mike and Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre Diocese do not address other issues of practical concern that come in the wake of Stella Maris’ closure, such as what is to happen to the building once the school is gone.
But Diane Schiavoni — a long-time Sag Harbor resident and member of St. Andrews Parish — said the school building is owned by St. Andrews.
In a statement issued by Sr. Joanne on April 14, the school superintendent wrote that she had met with the pastors and lay board members three weeks prior to news of the school’s deficit “and was presented with a recommendation to merge with Our Lady of the Hamptons [OLH].”
Though she indicated the option was not viable for the 2011-12 school year, and the idea of a “merger” is certainly a moot point now, some have speculated as to whether OLH in Southampton Village — where several Stella Maris parents have already enrolled their children for next year — will expand to take advantage of this Sag Harbor location.
As of press time, OLH Principal Sister Kathryn Schlueter had not returned a call for comment.
The closing of Stella Maris will put about 35 teachers and administrators out of work, and leave 176 students and their parents on the hunt for a new school.
In addition to OLH — the closest Catholic School in the vicinity of Sag Harbor — Dr. John Gratto, Superintendent of the Sag Harbor School District, said there are 25 Stella Maris students currently living in the district. While it’s not guaranteed that all 25 will enter the elementary or middle school next year, Dr. Gratto said the school would be able to accommodate all students without raising costs.
How Did it Come to This?
“I think overall most parents were dumbfounded by the announcement of the debt,” said parent Patty Conigliaro who, together with her husband Charles, spearheaded an effort shortly after the April 12 meeting to unite parents in their commitment to Stella Maris. But their efforts came in the face of waning confidence as a result of many unanswered questions on the part of the diocese.
“We were told over and over that programs were not going to get cut, but we were not told what was,” Conigliaro said of the diocese’s austerity budget.
In total, she managed to collect signatures from 31 parents, all of whom pledged $1,000 each to be kept in a trust, separate from the school until the diocese and the school board provided more information on how the school was to function in the next academic year.
But with the 44-student enrollment number collected by the diocese last week, in the end, it wasn’t enough. All the money has since been returned.
“My children are certainly the better for having attended Stella Maris,” she lamented. “It’s a shame that we weren’t given more time.”
Diane Bucking said her seventh-grade daughter, Katie, is doing her best to make the most of a sad situation. Katie was hoping to complete her primary school education at Stella Maris next year.
“[The seventh graders] have all been encouraged to help everyone in the school make wonderful memories during the next month to go along with the wonderful memories they have from the past,” Bucking wrote in an email.
“Katie will be attending Pierson next year,” she continued. “We had always planned to have her go to Pierson for high school, she will just be going one year sooner than planned.”