Push to save school continues

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St. Francis-St. Hedwig School students, parents and alumni rally Feb. 9 on Church Street in Naugatuck to show support for keeping the school open. The Archdiocese of Hartford is considering closing the school due to financial struggles. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

NAUGATUCK — The borough’s only Catholic school is still making plans to move forward despite questions about its future.

St. Francis-St. Hedwig School held an open house Saturday to register new and returning students for the 2018-19 school year. The open house came only weeks after the Archdiocese of Hartford announced it was looking into the possibility of closing the 120-year-old school at the end of the school year due to financial troubles.

Despite the concerns parents had after reading about the potential closing, parent Chester Cornacchia said the open house was well attended.

“There was definitely an uptick of interest in the school,” Cornacchia said on Monday. “There was three or four times the number of interest we normally have during open houses.”

The open house came the day after a rally on Church Street across from the school during which parents, students and alumni held signs in support of keeping the school open.

The archdiocese has pointed to declining enrollment as the main factor for the school’s projected deficit of $266,000, which was at first said to be $300,000 by the archdiocese.

“The overwhelming issue at St. Francis-St. Hedwig School is the dramatic decline in enrollment over the last several years,” Superintendent of Catholic Schools Michael Griffin said in an emailed response to questions.

Griffin said the tuition is the primary source of revenue for the school and the school budgeted for 172 students this year but there are only 150 students enrolled.

The loss of 22 students makes up $110,000 of the deficit based on tuition of $5,000, according to Griffin.

According to the school’s website, tuition is $4,400 for Catholic students and $4,900 for non-Catholic students. Families with two or more children at the school pay a lower rate.

The exact number of students that registered or attended the open house on Saturday was unclear. St. Francis-St. Hedwig Principal John Alfone didn’t return a message left for comment.

“The number of students registered will be considered along with the ideas presented by local officials and members of the (Saint Francis School) Foundation before a final decision (on closing the school) is made,” Griffin said.

Pastor Sebastian Kos of St. Francis of Assisi Parish declined to speak with the Citizen’s News and directed all questions to archdiocese spokeswoman Maria Zone.

Griffin said the school also had a deficit of $120,000 in “school bills which had to be paid,” but did not say which bills and why the amount was so high.

The rest of the deficit comes from operational costs not covered in the budget, said Griffin, who didn’t elaborate on what the operational costs entail.

Even if the school were able to cover the deficit, Griffin said the ongoing problems would still remain.

“Coming up with this large amount of money would pay the school’s operational costs through this year. This does not reflect longer-term projections given the severe enrollment decline and the parish’s financial inability to subsidize the school as it has in the past,” Griffin said.

Griffin said the archdiocese will make its final decision on the school within a few weeks.

Supporters of the school aren’t giving in easily.

Kevin McSherry, incoming president of the Saint Francis School Foundation, said the foundation would make a significant annual commitment toward the school’s operating expenses, dipping into the foundation’s capital, rather than just paying for requests out of investment interest as it has done in the past.

St. Francis-St. Hedwig School basketball coach Joseph Mobilio Sr. gives a thumbs up to a passing car while his son, Joseph Mobilio Jr., a kindergartener at the school, holds a sign during a rally Feb. 9 on Church Street in Naugatuck to show support for keeping the school open. The Archdiocese of Hartford is considering closing the school due to financial struggles. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

The foundation has about half a million dollars in assets, Cornacchia said. However, some of that is earmarked for specific scholarships.

Nikki McLaughlin, who has children in second and fifth grade at the school, said she was upset when she heard the school may close.

“Because of our family culture, as long as we stick together, we’re never going to close,” McLaughlin said. “This was a wake-up call to us parents. … We don’t want to lose this school. This is the best thing that’s ever happened for our children.”

Cornacchia remains positive about the school’s future, saying the school has faced similar hardships since the foundation was founded in 1980.

“The Office of Catholic Schools will frequently tell you numbers are declining nationwide. In 1980, people foresaw some of this and thought it wise to set aside funds for the inevitable,” Cornacchia said. “The fund acted as lifeline on three other occasions and the foundation was able to stabilize things. This is probably no different.”

Cornacchia said the school will hold more open houses in the coming weeks and reach out to day care centers to promote the school. In addition, he said, the school is going to highlight the strength and success of its graduates.

“One thing that differentiates St. Francis from every other institute out there primarily is the institution is so sound,” Cornacchia said. “The caliber of the students coming out of St. Francis are a much higher caliber than a lot of other institutes.”

Cornacchia said one of the things that makes him confident about the future of the school is that both the borough and the Naugatuck Board of Education support it.

“[Other Catholic schools that have closed] had a community that didn’t support them. The local boards of education viewed them as competition,” Cornacchia said. “That is not how Naugatuck sees it.”

The Republican-American contributed to this article.