Archdiocese announces Catholic school to close

NAUGATUCK — Citing declining enrollment and financial instability, the Archdiocese of Hartford announced Thursday afternoon that St. Francis-St. Hedwig School — the only Catholic school remaining in the borough — will be closing at the end of the current school year.

Meanwhile, parents of current students and members of the school’s nonprofit foundation pledged to continue their push to keep the 120-year-old school open, citing its longstanding presence in Naugatuck and its long track record of academic excellence.

In a March 8 letter written to parents that was shared with the Republican-American, St. Francis of Assisi pastor Rev. Sebastian Kos wrote the school “has fallen into serious financial difficulty,” which he said stemmed from a significant decline in enrollment.

According to the archdiocese, tuition income is a significant factor impacting financial stability, and currently there are only 148 students enrolled in grades pre-k through eight — “a loss of 105 students in the last six years.” The current enrollment is 23 students fewer than had been budgeted, the announcement states.

When St. Francis and St. Hedwig schools merged in 2011, enrollment was at 246. Before the merger, each school had about 150 students enrolled.

The decision to close the school came “after careful consideration by the pastor and parish trustees,” the announcement states.

Ultimately, the decision to close the school rests with Kos, who was assigned to the parish eight months ago after St. Hedwig and St. Mary churches were closed, and parish trustees, according to the archdiocese.

“The decision followed a month-long dialogue with local government leaders and members of the St. Francis-St. Hedwig School Foundation Inc., which failed to yield workable solutions to the school’s financial struggles and as a result, closure could not be avoided,” the announcement states.

The archdiocese’s announcement cited a few financial figures in stating its case for financial instability. The school has received a total over $200,000 from the archdiocese, in part from its annual appeal, leaving a shortfall “of at least $266,000 by the end of the year, with the burden of this debt falling on St. Francis of Assisi Parish,” according to the press release.

News of a possible closure first came in late January when representatives from the archdiocese and parish met with parents in a meeting that the media wasn’t allowed to attend.

Following the meeting, supporters of the school came together to develop a sustainability plan to keep the school open. Local borough officials and school representatives discussed options for keeping the school open with archdiocese officials.

Kevin McSherry, incoming president of the Saint Francis School Foundation, said the plan included the foundation making financial contributions to pay for capital projects at the school and to guarantee enrollment for several years while working to build up enrollment. If the school projected 150 students and only 140 enrolled, he said, the foundation would pay for the loss of tuition of the ten students.

McSherry, who graduated from the school along with his three brothers and sister, added that others in the community had pledged funds as well.

However, the proposal “was not accepted by the parish due to its reliance on unrealistic financial and enrollment projections, which could result in additional costs to the parish,” the release states.

McSherry, whose mother taught at the school, said school supporters felt their plan was a viable option. He said he’s very disappointed they weren’t given the opportunity to implement it.

McSherry said he’s saddened by the announcement and feels for the students and their parents because they will be the ones affected the most.

“It’s a very, very tough loss for our community,” he said.

Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess echoed McSherry’s sentiments.

“I felt that the plan was a good final effort to at least get another year for the school to give them time to increase enrollment on a long-term basis and to allow the archdiocese to avoid losing money,” he said.

Hess added, “I’m disappointed that the final plan wasn’t accepted.”

Parents of current St. Francis-St. Hedwig students blasted both the archdiocese and parish leadership upon learning of the plans to close their children’s school.

“Quitting is easy. It takes no effort, exactly no toll and holds no accountability. This school requires much effort and a fight using intellect and reason with facts over fiction. The truth is that this school can survive with a sincere effort by Father Sebastian or church leaders who are ready to accept the challenge not capitulate to failure,” parent Joe Mobilio said.

Chester Cornacchia, the parent of a current sixth-grade student at the school, said he is confident “that a sustainability solution is still attainable which will allow continued operation into the future and self-sustainability to preserve this important faith-based community asset.”

Another parent, Nikki McLaughlin, cited fluctuating figures regarding the school’s projected debt.

The archdiocese hasn’t provided details on where the debt comes from, and school supporters have questioned its accuracy.

“When the Office of Catholic Schools came to us in February, they said we were over $350,000 in debt,” McLaughlin said. “Now they say it’s $266,000, and the numbers keep changing with nothing to back it up but loose talk from people who don’t want to keep the school open.”

Cornacchia said the school “has an academic legacy that is second to none. Many of its graduates are multigenerational leaders in our community and the region.”

Cornacchia said graduates of the school go on to finish at the top of their class at Naugatuck High School, Sacred Heart High School and Holy Cross High School.

The school’s website lists 25 staff members. Teachers from the school will be given priority status when applying for teaching positions at other area Catholic schools, the press release states.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this article.