Tonawanda News

January 24, 2014

St. Francis officials vow to keep school open

By Jessica Bagley jessica.bagley@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Several hundred people attended a meeting at St. Francis of Assisi School Thursday night, and despite the emotion and tears, vowed to fight the Buffalo Diocese’s decision and keep the school open.

“In the bishop’s words, we do have a moral obligation to assist those who are in need,” Mark Saltarelli, an alumnus of the school and member of its endowment board who is spearheading the effort, said. “And with that obligation, the doors of St. Francis School will not be closed.”

Last week, the Buffalo Diocese announced that St. Francis would be one of 10 elementary schools to close at the start of the 2014-2015 academic year. Bishop Richard Malone said the decision was based on years of demographic research, including the number of infant baptisms in each area, public school enrollments, the distance to the next closest Catholic school and dozens of other factors.

But Saltarelli and other school supporters are questioning the reasoning behind the decision to close St. Francis, the only school set for closure that has increased its enrollment since 2003 — and the only school that serves the Twin Cities.

“I’m trying to get the bishop to understand that there is more to this school than the City of Tonawanda. We have kids from Niagara-Wheatfield, from the Town of Tonawanda. We are truly a regional school,” he said.

Both the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda do not bus out of the district, meaning that city parents will have to find other means of transportation.

Tuition at many of the other Catholic elementary schools, including St. John’s and St. Christopher’s in the town, is also higher than the cost at St. Francis. The school is also financially stable, and has a $500,000 endowment.

“I know there is no reason why this school has to close,” Saltarelli said. “It’s not about money or brick and mortar, it’s about promoting Catholic education and keeping schools open.”

Saltarelli said he has written four letters to Malone and has sent a Canon Law petition protesting the decision. As of Thursday night, Malone has not responded.

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.”

The petition also 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 transportation problems and other criteria.

Saltarelli said the bishop has 30 days to respond to the petition. The document also alerts the bishop that St. Francis will continue to accept registrations for the next school year. 

Saltarelli stressed that registering children at the school is necessary in order to keep St. Francis open. Interim Principal Louise Lopardi said the registration fee will be refunded if the plan to keep the school open does not work. Parents can also register their children and pay the fee later.

“I’m pretty emotional about this, because I’ve been in Catholic education for 45 plus years,” she said. “But here, it’s business as usual, and we are keeping the children engaged in learning.”

Rev. Mike Uebler called Thursday’s meeting, and delivered an emotional speech in which he pledged to be there for the students “no matter what.” His comments left many in the audience in tears.

“I’’m not a lawyer, I’m not a politician, I’m not any of that ... but I want you to know we are always looking out for the best for your kids,” he said. “We are a great community, we are going to continue to be a great community, and I know God is going to help.”