Catholic school’s future in doubt

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A sign on the door of St. Francis-St. Hedwig School in Naugatuck announcing a meeting Thursday to discuss the future of the school. -LARAINE WESCHLER/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — A 120-year-old Catholic educational institution may close at the end of the school year.

Maria Zone, spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Hartford, said the archdiocese plans to make a decision in the next couple of weeks on whether to close St. Francis-St. Hedwig School.

Representatives from the archdiocese met with parents Thursday night to discuss the financial viability of the school.

Reporters were barred from the meeting, but Superintendent of Catholic Schools Michael Griffin said in a statement that, “A financial review shows that the school is anticipating a major financial shortfall by the end of the school year, with insufficient parish or school resources to meet that shortfall.”

The main issue, Zone said, was declining enrollment, which dipped to 152 this year. When St. Francis and St. Hedwig schools merged in 2011, enrollment was at 246. Before the merger, each school had about 150 students enrolled.

“Tuition pays for the operational costs,” Zone said. “If enrollment doesn’t go up, it’s hard to sustain a school.”

Pastor Sebastian Kos of St. Francis of Assisi Parish said he’s working to save the school, even if it ends up continuing in another building.

Kos said as the only Catholic school in the immediate area, closure would hurt students.

The archdiocese also announced the closure of two other schools Thursday night. Our Lady of Mercy School in Madison and St. Mary School in Branford will close and East Shoreline Catholic Academy will open at the St. Mary’s campus.

Meanwhile, parents, school board members and the parish community are fighting to keep the doors of the private pre-k through eighth grade school in Naugatuck open. Naugatuck’s mayor and the four state legislators representing the borough all wrote to Archbishop Leonard Blair Tuesday and Wednesday urging Blair to hold off on an a recommendation to close the school.

In the letter, Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess wrote that stakeholders wanted to make a presentation to the borough’s Joint Boards of Mayor and Burgesses and Finance concerning the financial impact of a school closure on the borough and make a specific request for funding from the borough, along with a sustainability and reorganization plan involving various interested groups.

“The Saint Francis School Foundation is preparing a financial support lifeline for the school and we may cooperate with efforts to preserve this important institution,” Hess wrote.

Hess said he planned to meet with Archbishop Leonard P. Blair today.

“I need to know a lot more information, but I’m going to talk to them, listen to them, then we will decide what, if anything, can be done,” Hess said.

He said the borough may be interested in purchasing the sports field next to the St. Francis on Church Street. The extra cash may give the school time to increase enrollment and stave off closure.

“From a long-term standpoint of the best interest of the borough, we are going to need more property for sports fields because some of our other fields may be repurposed in the future to generate tax revenue,” Hess said.

If the Catholic school closes, the roughly 80 or 90 students from Naugatuck could end up in the public school system, which would impact the borough, Hess said.

Former Principal John Salatto, who retired last June after leading the two schools through the merger, said he left the school in very good shape.

“I’m surprised that things are at the state they’re in now,” Salatto said Thursday. “It was in great financial shape when I left and I can’t imagine things going downhill that quickly.”

He said some parents struggled to pay tuition after the recession in 2008.

The current tuition for Catholic families is $4,400 for a single student, according to the school’s website. The parish subsidizes each child by $250 and the actual cost to educate each pupil was $5,917. Tuition climbed by $100 to $200 each year over the last four years. The school also receives subsidies from the Archdiocese of Hartford, the Saint Francis School Foundation, and other grants. In 2011, the St. Francis Foundation had an endowment of $500,000.

State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas said parents, board members and other community leaders contacted her over the past few days with concerns that the school would close. In a letter she signed jointly with Naugatuck’s three other legislators, Rebimbas said she was provided with concerning information regarding the process that may have led to the decision.

“The loss of this school … without a full and vetted cooperative process would have a great negative impact on the students, their parents, their guardians, and the religious and nonreligious community at large,” the letter stated.

Rebimbas said she hoped for a positive, open dialogue with the archdiocese.

“I want to make sure we do everything possible to support and enable the school to stay open in Naugatuck,” she said.

Parent Chester Cornacchia, whose children attend the school, said it produces fine students that go on to become valedictorians at surrounding high schools.

“The St. Francis-St. Hedwig School represents a storied legacy in the community with over 125 years of a tradition of producing some of the finest students who have gone on to become notable citizens in the greater Naugatuck area,” Cornacchia said.

As a member of the Economic Development Corporation board, Cornacchia said having diverse educational offerings is important to the health of the community.

“I’ve devoted an enormous amount of energy toward the preservation of this institution,” Cornacchia said. “It is absolutely worth fighting for. It’s imperative that the community rally behind the school in order to preserve it for future generations.”

Joan Mormile, whose grandchildren attend the school, said closing the school would be a big hardship for her family.

“The children love it,” she said.

Several parents said they felt like the archdiocese wasn’t doing enough to support the school and didn’t provide much information.

Gil Kirby, a former parent and a seven-year member of the school board until June, said he wants to challenge church leaders to find a solution. He felt the parish could sell St. Hedwig and St. Mary churches, which closed last year. He said parents were feeling a little upset and deceived.

“If you read between the lines, they were basically laying the groundwork for closing the school,” Kirby said.

The school creates new Catholics to sustain the church in the future, Kirby said.

“A reorganization effort requires thoughtful insight, not just a reaction,” he said.