Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — St. Francis, the only remaining Catholic elementary school in the Twin Cities, will be one of 10 schools to close as part of a downsizing plan, the Buffalo Diocese announced Wednesday.
"When you think of the students, families, faculty, staff, parishioners, alumni and supporters of these schools, you realize how gut-wrenching this day is for them," Bishop Richard Malone said at the press conference held at the Catholic Center in Buffalo. "I ask that you keep them in your prayers and also ask that all neighboring Catholic schools be welcoming and compassionate."
Wednesday's announcement came after three years of extensive research and consultation. Malone, along with Superintendent of Catholic Schools Carol Cimino and Secretary of Education Carol Kostyniak, looked at declining enrollment numbers, the number of infant baptisms in each area, public school enrollments, the distance to the next closest Catholic school and dozens of other factors before making the final decision.
All of the 10 schools are in the suburbs of Erie County, and no schools in the City of Buffalo or Niagara County will close under the plan. Malone said the diocese is involved in preliminary talks to use BISON Fund scholarships to allow students to transfer out of low performing Buffalo elementary schools into Catholic institutions.
The announcement will affect approximately 1,154 students and 195 administrators, teachers and staff members will lose their jobs, though the diocese has pledged to offer employees who do not retire a chance to land a job elsewhere in the Catholic education system.
"Some will retire, and we will give every one of (the remaining employees) an opportunity for the new jobs at the schools that are remaining open," Kostyniak said. "We are hoping that the enrollment will go up and they will need to hire more teachers."
St. Francis of Assisi, located at 70 Adam St., currently has 152 students and 19 staff members.
Fritz Gorbach of North Tonawanda, who has children in kindergarten and second grade at the school, said he received an email from the diocese Department of Education about 2 p.m. Wednesday stating that St. Francis of Assisi School was slated to be closed at the start of the 2014-2015 academic year. The diocese announced the official list of the 10 schools at a press conference later in the afternoon.
"That is the only school that serves these two communities," he said. "I've talked to a bunch of parents already and we're very upset and worried and reaching out to anyone who can help us. We don't want to see that happen. It's the only one that serves the (City of Tonawanda) and North Tonawanda."
An email from the school said that the diocese did not want children hearing of the closures from the media, and wanted to give parents the opportunity to tell their children themselves.
The school and the diocese are encouraging parents to continue their children's Catholic education and worship at their home parish. Families will still receive the parishioners' discount, Malone said.
"In the coming weeks, our school will be hosting information nights, and our neighboring Catholic schools will be holding open houses," the email from St. Francis said. "We encourage you to investigate those schools, and, of course, we would want your child to continue his or her education in a Catholic school. To that end, we will provide you with a list of our neighboring schools’ open houses."
Principals at each school will decide what their capacity is, but Malone said neighboring schools will be able to accommodate every student transfer at the start of 2014. Students will not be allowed to transfer this academic year.
As for the schools slated for closure, each parish owns the school building and will decide how to reuse the structures. Since mid-2010, nine other schools have closed, and those buildings are used for religious education and many other purposes. One school was sold and redesigned into a senior citizen residence.
The other Catholic schools in the Town of Tonawanda and Kenmore, including St. Andrew's Country Day School, St. Amelia School, St. Christopher School and St. John the Baptist School in the Town of Tonawanda, will remain open. St. Stephen on Grand Island will also remain open.
Although officials were not able to say for certain that more closures will not be necessary, they stressed the decision is designed to ensure the sustainability of Catholic education.
The diocese plans to begin investing in academics, and over the course of three years will implement a new program, STREAM: Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Art and Math.
"Students will be engaged, from an early age, in studying robotics, architecture, space exploration, technical design and other topics wrapped around a values-based foundation," Cimino said.
Here is the complete list of schools that will be closed at the start of the 2014 school year:
• Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School, Elma
• Fourteen Holy Helpers School, West Seneca
• Our Lady of Pompeii School, Lancaster
• Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, Orchard Park
• St. Bernadette School, Orchard Park
• St. Francis of Assisi School, Tonawanda
• St. Joseph School, Gowanda
• St. Leo the Great School, Amherst
• St. Mary of the Lake School, Hamburg
• St. Vincent dePaul School, Spring Brook