St. Augustine School parents, staff, administrators and alumni gathered Wednesday night to discuss the Archdiocese of New York’s announcement that the New City school was “at risk” of closure at the end of this school year. On Monday, the Archdiocese released a preliminary list of 26 “at risk” Catholic elementary schools, which included two Rockland County schools - St Augustine and St. Peter Parish School in Haverstraw.
No decisions about closures will be made until January to allow the schools time to prepare an appeal of the designation and a response to the data, which was evaluated by the Regional Board appointed by the Archdiocese.
St. Augustine’s Home School Association President Beth Rooney said, “Obviously this is a devastating blow to the parents and staff of St. Augustine School.”
Rooney, who spearheaded the school’s four-year strategic planning effort and is now leading its appeal and response, found the announcement surprising based on how St. Augustine had changed over the past few years. The school, which is entering its 53rd year, enrolls 219 students from Pre-K through eighth grade.
Students come from throughout Rockland to attend St. Augustine. Its capacity is 335 students, which was last reached in the 1980s.
“We are the top performing school in Rockland County, public and private,” she said, adding the number of students transferring in the upper grades from other Catholic and public schools in the county has increased because of its academic reputation.
Marie Mehu of New Hempstead, whose 12-year-old son attends the school, said it was like their second home.
“When I got the news I was devastated,” she said. “It is a great school. The faculty is wonderful.”
Another parent said he had a mix of feelings from sadness and anger to confusion. He said his sixth grade son offered to contribute the money from his piggy bank to keep the school open. His son is worried he will lose his friends if the school closes.
Rooney pointed out that under its strategic plan, the school increased enrollment by 13 percent over the past two years. It began providing special education services, teaching Spanish in all grades, offering before and after school programs and expanded after school extra-curricular activities.
“We have a brand new state of the art computer lab,” she said. “We have a brand new state of the art science lab.”
2011 graduate Gianna Pisano said St. Augustine gave her a solid start for high school.
“This school really prepared me,” she said, adding she is doing better academically at Albertus Magnus than her friends who attended other Catholic elementary schools in the county.
Pisano thought the teachers were fantastic and remarked on the family-oriented atmosphere. Her sister Samantha, a seventh grader, reacted strongly to the news.
“She was really, really upset,” said Pisano. “She was crying.”
Rooney and Rev. William Cosgrove, pastor of St. Augustine Parish, spoke prior to going into a meeting with Saint Augustine School community members, which ran for three hours. Rev. Cosgrove was one of 17 members of the Regional Board that scrutinized data from Rockland’s seven Catholic elementary schools.
When it came down to it, the decision was based on finances because he said the Archdiocese could no longer afford to fund the Catholic schools. Rev. Cosgrove said they projected the Rockland schools would have a $2 million deficit by the 2014-2015 school year and two had to be closed. The other local Catholic grammar schools are: St. Anthony in Nanuet, St. Margaret in Pearl River, St. Paul in Valley Cottage, Sacred Heart in Suffern and St. Gregory Barbarigo in Garnerville.
“We understand that the Archdiocese needs to reduce their deficit,” Rooney said. “We obviously shocked and devastated by the news because we have worked so long and so hard to prevent ourselves from getting to this position.”
Rooney said the school needs some major donors who want to make an investment in St. Augustine and Catholic education. She expects the parents and alumni working on the alternative proposal to save the school will have expertise in financial planning, communications, real estate and law. Rooney said one parent with three daughters at the school spoke during the meeting and said his company was declaring bankruptcy and he planned to give the proceeds to St. Augustine.
Rooney said the response would be two-pronged. The first part will provide input on data reviewed by the board and make sure all the relevant data was considered. The second component will recommend why St. Augustine School should take off the list.
Archdiocese Spokeswoman Fran Davies explained the review process, which began in September.
“This review included all relevant data, including, but not limited to enrollment, financial, academics, local demographics, and all available information to ensure their recommendations will result in financially healthy, sustainable schools for in the region,” Davies said. “The long-term goal of regionalization is to maintain sustainable, excellent local school options for families who want a Catholic school education for their children.”
Rooney noted, “We must come up with a proposal that allows the school to eliminate or significantly reduce the financial support from the Archdiocese, parish or region.”
The school received $337,000 from the parish for this school year. That was $73,000 less than the prior year because of budget reductions. The school’s response must be submitted by Jan. 3, 2013 with a presentation likely to occur later that month.
According to Davies, the next step involves the pastors and principals of the at-risk elementary schools meeting with members of the local Board to discuss the combination of factors that led the school to be selected, review next steps and share insights for consideration of the review process. The final decision will be made in January 2013.