Tonawanda News

January 17, 2014

EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Staff, parents angered by St. Francis of Assisi School closure

By Jill Keppeler jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Shocked. Devastated. Stunned. Blindsided.

As the events of Wednesday settled into reality for thousands of families throughout Western New York, those are words the people associated with St. Francis of Assisi School in the City of Tonawanda used to describe their reaction to the news the last Catholic elementary school in the Twin Cities will close at the end of the school year.

“We were shocked,” St. Francis Principal Colleen Politowski said during an interview Thursday at her office. “We really didn’t believe we were going to close.

“We’ve increased enrollment for the past 10 years. This is in the face of demographics going down in this area.”

St. Francis, with 186 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, is the largest of 10 schools slated by the Buffalo Catholic Diocese to close at the end of the school year. Politowski said the school just had two new students register for prekindergarten and two tours for prospective students scheduled for today.

“We were doing really well with enrollment,” she said. “We really were.”

Louise Lopardi, who has more than 20 years of experience at the since-closed St. Paul’s School in Kenmore and has filled a number of roles at St. Francis over the past seven years, was one of a number of people who used the word “blindsided” to describe her reaction.

“(Before the announcement) I’ve walked around the building talking to teachers, saying ‘Oh, it’s going to be all right.’ And it’s not all right,” she said. “I’ve seen this school grow and blossom. We’ve had a lot of families come here who probably couldn’t afford another Catholic education. This is a home for them. And the parish embraces the school.

“I’ve been in Catholic education for 45 years. Schools with a lot fewer students than we have remain open. Schools that don’t have programs we have.”

In announcing Wednesday the 10 schools slated for closure, Bishop Richard Malone, Carol Kostyniak, secretary for Catholic education for the diocese and Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, cited a number of factors that were examined, including declining enrollment numbers, the number of infant baptisms in each area, public school enrollments, the distance to the next closest Catholic school and many other factors.

But many of those of associated with St. Francis of Assisi have a number of questions and concerns about elements of the decision and its results.

Confusing the Tonawandas?

One of those is about the identity of the school as a “Twin Cities” Catholic school, the last one in North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda. Politowski and Lopardi said diocese documents (including the press release sent out on the closures) list the school as being in simply “Tonawanda” — although diocesan officials have repeatedly been told that it’s not in the Town of Tonawanda or Kenmore. 

And Twin Cities parents — whether from NT or the City of Tonawanda — all said they identify far more with the other respective city than they do with the town.

Carolyn Gorski, who has sons in fifth and eighth grades, said it’s a major oversight by the diocese.

“Don’t lie. Say it like it is. You’re saying to the Twin Cities, ‘screw you, we don’t care about your 50,000 people,’ “ she said. “There is no Catholic school for the Twin Cities. When you look at the City of Tonawanda, you have to look at North Tonawanda. Why would you thumb your nose at the cities and keep four schools in the town?”

NT and the City of Tonawanda had about 46,000 people as of the 2010 census, while the Town of Tonawanda had about 73,000 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. However, while there will be no more Catholic schools in NT or the city after this school year, four other Catholic schools in the town will remain open, a fact that doesn’t sit well with Gorski and others.

Fritz Gorbach of North Tonawanda, who has children in kindergarten and second grade at St. Francis, said he was shocked at the decision.

“I can’t understand why they’d take (away) the only Catholic school in the Twin Cities,” he said. “We were told there was a series of benchmarks that were going to be examined. Our enrollment has gone up while other schools’ have gone down. There are so many factors that left us completely blindsided. It’s a terrible thing.

“I can’t imagine what spurred this decision other than they feel like they can make more money somewhere else. And that’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

Some of the students at St. Francis will be moving on to their third school in about four years after this school year. A number of students from North Tonawanda Catholic School moved to St. Francis after its 2010 closure — itself the last Catholic school in North Tonawanda after the closure of the St. Joseph’s campus in 2006 and the Our Lady of Czestochowa campus in 2008.

L. Don Swartz, who has children in third and sixth grades at St. Francis, said about 40 to 45 students moved to the school after North Tonawanda Catholic closed. 

“As parents, we feel a certain sense of guilt there. I apologized to my boys, ‘I’m sorry we sent you to another school that closed.’ They’re home today, they’re devastated,” he said. “All the parents feel exactly the same way. We’re grieving, the kids are crying.

“We thought we would be OK. We thought, ‘There’s no way they’ll put these 40 kids through this again,’ just on a human level. They don’t know what it feels like. I’m convinced they don’t care.”

Transportation, endowment questions linger

The Twin Cities identity and location of the school also brings into question the issue of transportation. St. Francis is located in the City of Tonawanda, and under state law, city school districts are not required to provide transportation to students enrolled in nonpublic schools outside city lines. That means unless parents can provide their own transportation, children from the City of Tonawanda are out of options. 

“The City of Tonawanda will not bus out of district; the City of North Tonawanda will not bus out of district,” Politowski said. “It’s just not feasible. For many of the families, it’s not feasible. It comes down to money for them, and they don’t have that money.”

Gorski said that when NT Catholic closed, diocese officials said that they would “look into” busing for students.

“Guess what, they couldn’t and wanted to charge each family $1,000 if we wanted a bus,” she said.

As far as finances go, St. Francis officials said the school is stable. It has something unique, an endowment of about $500,000 that was started about 10 years ago, and the interest is used to help the school and mitigate tuition for its students. Politowski said she doesn’t know what will happen to the fund, but some parents have concerns that its benefits will be lost with St. Francis.

Gorbach said it would be difficult or impossible to maintain the benefits as the students disperse.

“How do they sort that out? How is it possible to send it with the kids?” he asked. “One-hundred dollars here, $100 there? It’s a lot of money that parents have worked and saved for, too.”

Swartz said North Tonawanda Catholic parents were told that St. Francis was safe when their children transferred there because of the endowment.

“What happened to our failsafe? What about that now? Nobody has said,” he said.

Process questioned

In addition, some have questions about the process of selecting the closing schools, especially when they’d believed that St. Francis hit all its benchmarks, including having room for another 200 or so children at its facilities.

Swartz said surveys given to parents about six weeks ago asked “leading” questions, ones he described as similar to “Would you like a school with a brand-new science lab or a school that teaches science in an ordinary classroom?” and “Would you like a brand-new gym or a gym that also doubles as a cafeteria?” Questions like that lead him to believe the diocese was trying to give the appearance parents preferred to send children to shiny, new, big schools — rather than the quaint neighborhood schools largely targeted for closure, he said.

“Everything that you answered was not St. Francis, not these little schools with little neighborhoods,” he said. “They’re closing these little neighborhood schools. If we wanted to go to a school with 400 kids in it, we’d go to a public school.”

In the end, however, the decision has been made. There is no appeals process, and while some parents, including Gorbach, said they’re trying to encourage others to question the decision, they’re also preparing for its implementation. Gorbach spoke Thursday while on his way from visiting another area school for his children.

“We’re certainly hoping” the diocese will reverse the decision, he said. “I’ve been trying to rally people, but at the same time, we’re making plans for the future.”

And in her office at St. Francis, Politowski, the school’s principal, soldiers on, dealing with a school full of heartbroken students and teachers.

“My main concern is the children and the staff,” she said. “I want them to find a home and move on, and do the best they can. Another door will open.”