After 134 years, Stella Maris Regional School in Sag Harbor, the oldest Catholic school on Long Island, shut its doors at the end of the 2010-2011 school year, 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 on May 6.
Just one month prior to Fr. Rieder’s letter, teachers and parents first learned from Sister Joanne Callahan, Superintendent of Education for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, of the school’s estimated $480,000 deficit in an emergency meeting held April 12.
Adding to the sense of urgency and panic that seemed to blanket the school at the end of the school year was the fact that — mere moments before the meeting took place — parents and teachers were informed that the school’s principal, Jane FitzGerald Peters, had resigned. After the meeting, the three lay people on the school board also resigned.
The mismanagement of school funds was not only a contributing factor in the school’s demise, it put a large rift between parents and the diocese.
According to Diocese Spokesperson Sean Dolan, the school had seen a 16-percent drop in enrollment last year and the school had “uncollected monies, for whatever reason,” he said.
“There are a lot of misstatements,” said parent Jennifer Fowkes last spring. ”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.”
Parent and school board member Suzanne Wilutus added, “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.”
Since April, a faction of parents dedicated to keeping the school open scrambled to raise the $116,250 needed by August 31 to keep the school up-and-running. Of that amount, the diocese proclaimed that an estimated $300,000 owed for unpaid pension and medical benefit costs would have been overlooked for the 2011-2012 academic year.
In addition to raising funds, the school would have also needed to accept the diocese’s proposed austerity budget for fall 2011 and maintain a K-to-8 enrollment number of 102.
By May, however, the school’s total enrollment number was down to 44.
Dolan explained 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 will 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 will happen to the building — which is owned by St. Andrews’ Parish — once the school is gone.
It is currently vacant.