By Claire Walla
It all comes down to this.
As of press time, Sister Joanne Callahan, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Father Don Hanson of Most Holy Trinity Parish in East Hampton, and Father Mike Rieder of the Church of Saint Therese of Lisieux in Montauk, are meeting in a closed door session in Sag Harbor to decide the fate of the only Catholic school from here to Montauk — Stella Maris.
“We’re really just waiting for the numbers to be counted,” said parent Elizabeth Linker of the school’s intended 2011-12 enrollment numbers, which were collected on Tuesday, May 3 and counted all-day May 4.
Last month, parents learned from Sr. Joanne that the Sag Harbor school faces a $480,000 deficit. At a follow-up meeting on Wednesday, April 20, Sr. Joanne said the school needs to address the issue in three ways in order to open in September: the school board must accept the austerity budget proposed by the diocese, parents must raise a total of $116,250 by August 31, and enrollment numbers for grades K-8 must reach 102 by Tuesday, May 3.
“The superintendent came out yesterday [May 3] and she’s been meeting with parents for two days now to go over all the issues,” Linker continued. “She wants to keep the school open. No one can blame the diocese for not trying.”
“If they were going to close the school, they wouldn’t be having these meetings,” Linker added. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll be able to open.”
Tensions remain high at the school as controversy over the school’s fiscal practices was made public and has been covered [vigorously] by the news media in recent weeks.
Past school board members, as well as members of the Stella Maris Parents Association, expressed disappointment over the fact that the school accumulated a growing deficit over the past three years — during which time the deficit increased by $346,000 — while the Stella Maris School Board did little to off-set the rising debt.
School officials, including principal Jane Peters and all executive members of the school board, have not spoken publicly about the issue and have instead referred all calls to Sean Dolan, director of communications for the diocese.
Dolan did not respond to repeated calls and neglected to answer questions emailed to him this week on the matter. But in an interview last week, Dolan said the diocese and the school board had knowledge of the deficit.
“We need to ensure transparency,” he explained. “Did the pastors have all the information? If so, where was the breakdown in communication? There needs to be effective communication between the pastors, the school board and the parents.”
As for the school’s enrollment, Dolan wouldn’t confirm whether or not the school would close for good if it didn’t reach 102 students exactly.
“If the school doesn’t get that number on May 3, is it then a fait accompli? I’m not prepared to say that,” he said. “May 3 was discussed as a firm date, but at the same token, if there are late-comers, there’s a little wiggle room.”
Linker expressed disappointment over the way news of the deficit broke to the school community — particularly that Stella Maris was painted in such a harsh light.
“It’s embarrassing for the school and it’s embarrassing for the diocese,” she said.
Linker explained that it’s important for Stella Maris — the oldest Catholic school on Long Island — to remain a fixture on the East End.
“I’m on the verge of tears all the time,” she said. “Every day it’s a wave of emotions. And it goes beyond the school. We want to save something that’s important for the community.”
In addition to the $36,000 Linker said parents have already raised over the past two weeks to help bring the school out of its financial hole, two anonymous donors gave the school an additional check for $50,000 this past week.
According to vice principal Patricia Sliwienski the school is in possession of the money, which would mean parents are now only faced with collecting $30,250.
“We’re very excited,” she said on Tuesday while holding a giant check on the front steps of the school. “We’re looking forward to opening the school next year.”
However, some parents have already pulled their children out of Stella Maris, while others — like Michael and Claudia Taglich — have looked into other options, but will send their children to Stella Maris, should the school open its doors in September.
“There are still a lot of people on the fence,” Linker said in reference to reports of financial discontent from several Stella Maris parents. “It’s not good business practices to threaten and cause harm [to the school]. I think we’ve lost a lot of students because of it.”