Catholic schools likely to merge

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St. Francis Catholic School will probably welcome St. Hedwig students into its building when the two schools merge.

NAUGATUCK – Parents anxious about a possible merger between St. Hedwig and St. Francis catholic schools got a few more answers at a St. Francis parish meeting Sunday.

With parish subsidies to St. Francis coming to an end next year, a combined school with St. Hedwig would have to enroll 218 students to break even, according to Maria Maynard, St. Francis’ superintendent.

The diocese can no longer afford to operate both schools because of rising costs and shrinking enrollment, Maynard said.

The parish meeting Sunday was the last step in a process started in August to come up with a solution for the future of catholic schools in Naugatuck.

Maynard said she expects to submit a proposal to the archbishop in the next few days.

In 2000, enrollment at St. Francis was 235 students. By last year, enrollment had plummeted to 160. With each year, the gap between the cost of tuition and the actual cost per student has widened. For the current school year, the difference is projected at $2,547 per student.

For a healthy system, tuition should cover 70 to 80 percent of the cost, Maynard said, but right now it’s only covering about 49 percent.

With the parish operating under a deficit of about $219,000, it can no longer afford subsidies to cover the gap, Maynard said.

Father Michael Slusz, pastor at St. Francis Church, said projected tuition costs for next year will be between $3,500 and $3,700, depending on enrollment, with the actual cost at around $5,500 to $5,600.

Maynard discussed the possibility of soliciting subsidies from other parishes, which would involve parishes paying $250 per student for children who come to St. Francis from another parish.

St. Francis might continue to pay a minimal subsidy next year, Slusz said, but they haven’t discussed that yet.

Maynard said the school has tried everything they can to increase enrollment, without success.

She said other options, such as becoming a magnet school or finding a corporate sponsor, are not viable, leading the two schools to conclude that a merger is the best option.

“The whole purpose would be to have a strong, fully enrolled Catholic school and not have two sets of expenses,” Maynard said.

Although the new school would be hosted in the St. Francis building because it is bigger, it would blend the teachers and staff of both schools and possibly have a new name, Maynard said.

She said she didn’t have any details as to how this would work, but the new school would choose teachers based on their history and evaluations.

Parents’ main concern with the plan centered on its timing. With enrollment for other Catholic schools in the area already underway, parents were worried that others would go elsewhere rather than hedge their bets that the merger would go through.

Maynard said she expected a decision from the archbishop, who has the final say, in the next few weeks, although she couldn’t pinpoint a date.

“We’re going to have our ducks all in a row,” she said.

Tamath Rossi, who has two children at St. Francis, said she would welcome St. Hedwig students, but was concerned about the delay.

“I don’t want to see there not be a future for Catholic education in Naugatuck,” she said.

Rossi and other parents were upset after a previous meeting held several weeks ago because they didn’t receive answers to many of their questions. Rossi said parents received a vague letter from the school prior to the first meeting that didn’t mention what it was about. She said the school asked for parents’ support without giving them all the plans.

“The archdiocese is not being honest with us,” Rossi said following the first meeting.

Parents were the second to last group the archdiocese consulted, after meeting with the pastor, principal, school board, parish council, finance counsel, trustees, and Home School Association officers.

Parents’ concerns seemed to be eased following the meeting on Sunday, but the future of the schools remains in question.

If the combined school can’t enroll 218 students, there may not be a Catholic school in Naugatuck next year, according to Slusz.

“I can’t come out here and definitively say we’re going to have a Catholic school next year,” he said.

Maynard said that other schools that merged have about an 80 percent retention rate.

“That would be heaven,” she said, if the same thing happened with St. Hedwig and St. Francis.

Parents asked for examples of other successful mergers and Maynard responded by naming several, including St. Brendan and St. Aden in New Haven, and St. Rose and St. Christopher in East Hartford, which merged this year.

Slusz said they would start working to blend the two schools as soon as the news is official.

“We’re just waiting for the green light. … We’re all willing and eager to get going,” he said.

He said the success of the new school will require support from everyone involved.

“It’s going to need all of us to come together,” he said.

Maynard said she would ask principals at other schools not to take applications from St. Hedwig and St. Francis students until the archdiocese has made a decision.

Jack Tavares, principal of Mount Carmel in Waterbury, said he had three visitors from St. Hedwig last week.

“I don’t know what to say to them,” he said.

He said he planned to treat students coming to him from St. Hedwig and St. Francis the same as all his prospective students. They can make a decision based on what his school has to offer, he said.

“I don’t know if I can turn them away,” Tavares said.

Mike Rosa, who is a member of the St. Francis Finance Council, said the process should have been finalized in December, before enrollment started.

“I’m very angry about this whole process,” he said.

School Board President Bernice Rizk said she understood why everyone was frustrated, adding the school board itself was nervous at first. She said they walked into their meeting as two school boards, but came out as one.

“We are ready to go,” she said.

Rizk said she hopes the St. Francis – St. Hedwig merger will be a model for other schools.

“I’m excited to make it work,” she said.

Ryan Murphy, who has two kids at St. Francis, said he was cautiously optimistic about the merger.

“I’m very encouraged coming out of this meeting,” he said.

He said the office of catholic schools have started to hone in on a viable plan.

“If there’s any way that I can continue to send my kids to a catholic school in Naugatuck, that is my wife and my goal right now,” he said.