Tonawanda News

March 16, 2014

St. Francis students write to religious, political officials

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Students at St. Francis have joined in the fight to keep their school open and sent more than 100 letters to religious and political officials this week in support of the effort. 

“The children wanted to know what they could do to help. Sometimes they feel helpless being so young,” Principal Colleen Politowski said. “Their parents have their own roles in keeping the school open, and the kids want to help, but some of them have felt left out.”

The school organized an optional letter writing campaign to involve the students, who wrote to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, U.S. Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Congressman Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, the National Catholic Register and the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Co.

The letters included a variety of reasons why the schools should stay open, including arguments that parents and parishioners have been voicing since January, when the Buffalo Diocese announced that St. Francis and nine other Catholic elementary schools would close.

The students wrote that their school is the only Catholic elementary institution in the Twin Cities, and serves children from the Town of Tonawanda and Wheatfield. St. Francis is the largest school slated for closure, and is the only one of the 10 to have increased its enrollment over the past 10 years. The school, which currently has 152 students enrolled, also has a $500,000 endowment, the students wrote. 

Parents are also concerned about transportation, as the city doesn’t provide busing outside of the district to other Catholic schools — many of which have higher tuition rates.  

“There are so many kids that benefit from being able to attend St. Francis, and they wouldn’t be able to attend or afford other schools,” Politowski said.

Attorney, parishioner and alumnus Mark Saltarelli has included many of those arguments in a Canon Law appeal, which asks for a reversal of Bishop Richard Malone’s decision. Saltarelli said Friday that the Roman Curia has received the appeal. 

“We’re in a waiting game right now,” he said.

Saltarelli and Politowski said they remain hopeful that Pope Francis and other religious officials will see the value of the local school and reverse the decision. 

Other options are being kept open, and Saltarelli has been in contact with the attorney representing St. Bernadette, an Orchard Park school set to close at the end of the year. The school may file a civil suit against the diocese in Erie County Supreme Court, and Saltarelli said he is keeping an eye on the school’s progress.

Community members also have explored the possibility of keeping St. Francis open privately.

“It’s something that we’ve looked at, but right now, that’s sort of on hold until we see what happens with the appeal,” Saltarelli said, noting that he hopes he’ll hear from Rome this month. “I’d rather just win the appeal and not have to do everything we’d have to do to go private.” 

Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.