Tonawanda News

January 22, 2014

St. Francis gears up for fight

BACKLASH: Petition sent to bishop, meeting planned for Thursday at school.

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — A week after the Diocese of Buffalo announced plans to close 10 Catholic elementary schools — including St. Francis of Assisi in the City of Tonawanda — supporters of the school are not going quietly.

In fact, they don’t intend to go at all.

A meeting is planned for Thursday evening at the school, North Tonawanda and Tonawanda common councils and the Niagara County Legislature passed resolutions in support of the school Tuesday evening, a Facebook page opposing the decision has more than 1,800 members — and, most recently, a petition under church canon law has been sent to the bishop asking him to reconsider the closure of St. Francis School.

Mark Saltarelli, an alumnus of the school, member of its endowment board and father of St. Francis graduates, sent the petition to Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo on Tuesday.

Saltarelli, Mark Warren and Linda Carlson, all three City of Tonawanda residents and parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church, are named on the petition, which invokes canon law dealing with “recourse against administrative decrees.”

The petition claims “that the demographic data and criteria used by the Diocese of Buffalo to evaluate a school such as St. Francis of Assisi School is seriously flawed in that it only took into account data from St. Francis of Assisi Church and the City of Tonawanda, excluding all other churches and data from the City of North Tonawanda” and cites the size of the school, its increasing enrollment, the community it serves, the “healthy and supportive” alumni community, the endowment fund, the school’s financial health, the busing issues and other criteria in support.

Saltarelli said the bishop has 30 days to respond to the petition before any further action on the part of the school. In the meantime, the petition asks that enforcement of the decision be suspended and alerts the bishop that St. Francis will continue to accept registrations for the next school year.

Saltarelli, an attorney and former judge, has also sent two previous letters to the diocese since the Jan. 15 announcement, requesting a meeting to discuss the criteria used to justify the school’s closure and criticizing the decision to close.

“I have not heard a word from the chancery downtown, from anyone,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I hope they are at least considering the information we are providing them, as well as considering the other community support groups that are sending information to them.”

Contacted Tuesday, a diocese representative had no comment.

“We just received the petition and we are not issuing a statement at this time,” said Kristina M. Connell, communications manager for the diocese.

Carlson, who is also on the endowment board with Saltarelli and Warren, said the group wants to see the numbers that were used to justify the school’s closure.

“We question the data that was used. The little bits and pieces that we are privy to don’t add up in our minds,” she said. “We’d just like verification of the data.”

Carlson, a member of the parish for about 40 years, has served on many committees there over the years. She said the community’s love of the school has been beyond words.

“In the meantime, we’re still going to promote the school,” she said. “It’s not going to pass away quietly.”

The school is going forward with a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, called by the Rev. Mike Uebler of St. Francis parish, according to Saltarelli. In addition to local community members, Saltarelli said he expects parents from other schools affected by the decision to attend as well.

“We are going to proceed to register children for the upcoming school year,” he said. “I’m encouraging the parents and the administration to continue business at St. Francis as usual. ... We have to register children; if we don’t register children, that’s it.”

All registration fees will be refundable if something happens along the line, he said. The possibility of the school remaining open as an independent, private school has also been mentioned in the past week.

Saltarelli said some of the issues involved are the transportation question (city school districts are not obligated to bus children to private schools out of their district boundaries), the fact that the school also supports a community with many low-income students (diocese representatives have cited low-income families in the City of Buffalo as a reason for keeping those city schools open) and the school’s $500,000 endowment fund, which he said cannot, under the parish bylaws, go with the students, but must stay within the parish.

“It is a historic moment for the Tonawandas,” he said. “St. Francis of Assisi church is a historic landmark. If you close the school, you’re sticking a dagger into the church itself.”

In addition to meetings and petitions, supporters of St. Francis have also turned to social media, tweeting the Pope and starting a “Save Saint Francis of Assisi School Tonawanda New York” Facebook page, which was created Friday and was up to 1,835 members by Tuesday afternoon.

“The Diocese of Buffalo picked the wrong school to close,” wrote one parent on the page this weekend. “Little did they realize how much we love the school and will fight their decision.”