Diocese to close Roebling school

Area Catholic schools to regionalize.

By: Scott Morgan
   After two months of hope and a concerted effort to keep the doors open, Holy Assumption Roman Catholic School’s 82-year presence in Roebling will end with the 2005-2006 school year.
   Bishop John Smith announced on behalf of the Diocese of Trenton Wednesday that four schools in Burlington County — Holy Assumption, Corpus Cristi in Willingboro, All Saints in Burlington and St. Peter’s in Riverside — will merge to form the Pope John Paul II Regional School at the Corpus Cristi campus next school year.
   The regionalization was one of two announced at a news conference Wednesday in Trenton. Two schools in Monmouth County also were targeted for merger in the wake of sagging enrollment and a grim financial outlook for diocesan schools. The Trenton Diocese includes the counties of Burlington, Monmouth and Mercer, where parochial school consolidations have already occurred.
   "This diocese and its parishes simply cannot afford to continue to subsidize financially challenged schools without impairing our ability to serve the many facets of our broader mission," Bishop Smith said. "The trends and demographics that have shaped our current circumstances are not going to go away. It is our responsibility to accept these realities and deal with them in a creative, constructive and pro-active way."
   Holy Assumption has 26 teachers and staff and approximately 165 children. According to a diocesan statement from November, those teachers will be given priority in terms of hiring at the Pope John Paul II Regional School, though it was unclear as of Wednesday how many teachers would be applying for work there.
   The move toward consolidation within the diocese began one year ago, when Wisconsin-based consulting firm Meitler Associates was commissioned to study the feasibility of independently operating several diocesan schools. Meitler’s findings cited poor financial health and declining enrollment in a number of schools, including Holy Assumption.
   Almost immediately after the Meitler report was issued and the diocese announced the likely regionalization, parents, teachers and staff connected to Holy Assumption launched an effort to prove that the school could indeed survive on its own. Impassioned pleas met practical planning as supporters cited fundraising records and courted media attention with ubiquitous signs and bumper stickers aimed at keeping Holy Assumption going.
   Yesterday’s announcement by Bishop Smith ended the supporters’ hopes, to the dismay of many involved in the campaign to keep Holy Assumption on Hornberger Avenue.
   "I am very disappointed with the Diocese of Trenton and the Office of Catholic Education," said Karen DeBow, a former member of the diocesan task force designed to study the possibility of regionalization and former member of the Holy Assumption PTA. "I am truly saddened by this news. My faith and trust has been deeply shaken."
   Ms DeBow added that the diocese should have invested the $1 million it spent on the Meitler study to bail out at-risk schools such as Holy Assumption.
   "The task force," she said, "was just a smoke screen to execute a plan that was developed over a year ago."
   Holy Assumption Principal Gerard Steffe said he was deeply saddened and frustrated by the news.
   On the way back from Trenton after the conference, Mr. Steffe said he considered the words of Jesus, "Suffer the little children to come unto me; let them not be turned away."
   "I thought, how do I tell the children they can’t come back," he said.
   What might help, he said, is a different set of words from Jesus discussing when it’s time to move on — "Leave that town and shake off the dust from your feet."
   "I feel like shaking the dust," Mr. Steffe said. "But I wish (the diocese) had given us a chance."
   For the diocese, of course, the decision to merge the four Burlington County schools is a step toward a more financially healthy future and a chance for area Catholic schools to reinvent themselves.
   "Our schools are in a period of transformation and rebirth," said Judith Caviston, diocesan secretary for Catholic Education. "We will work together as a community to protect the mission of Catholic education and to assure that our schools are available to future generations of Catholic school students."
   After calling the decision to merge the Burlington and Monmouth County schools "the basis for a bright future," Bishop Smith repeatedly referred to the diocese’s "reality check." The bullet points cited the increasing cost of educating children "in this ever-changing, techno-driven environment," the increasing inability of many parents to pay Catholic school tuition, the need for better marketing of Catholic schools, the need to move managerial tasks associated with operating the school beyond the pastor and principal, and the fact that the diocese can simply not afford to subsidize flagging schools.
   Though some parents, back in November, stated that they would not send their children to Willingboro, possibly creating a tide of students entering the Florence Township School District, Dr. Caviston said that in the long run, the financial health of the diocese’s schools will be good for everyone.
   "I can’t say this emphatically enough," Dr. Caviston said. "The health and well-being of all of our Catholic schools should be a concern for every taxpayer in this state, regardless of his or her religion. The state pays, on average, more than $10,000 in per pupil costs. For every 10 students that opt to leave Catholic school and go to public school, it will cost that particular district $100,000 in additional costs. Unless and until our laws allow parents to choose the school to which they will send their children, we will continue to run the risk that more of our Catholic schoolchildren will end up on the public school rolls and the district’s budget."
   In letters sent Wednesday to the school communities, Dr. Caviston announced that meetings to discuss the consolidation would be held for parents Jan. 31 at the St. Agnes campus, Atlantic Highlands, and Jan. 30 at the Corpus Christi campus, Willingboro. Meetings for faculty were scheduled separately.