Tag Archive | "catholic school"

Diocese Confirms: Stella Maris Closing at the End of the Year

Tags: , , ,


web_Stella Maris Scool 4-19-11_0025

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.”

Pushing for Dollars and Reform at Stella Marris

Tags: , ,


web_Stella-Maris-Scool-4-19-11_00251-1

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.”

HIDDEN FUNDS

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.”