12 Hudson Valley Catholic schools hoping for a miracle to avoid closure

St. Augustine School in New City is among St. Augustine School in New City is among 12 area Catholic schools that might close at the end of the school year. (Nov. 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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The 12 Hudson Valley Catholic schools slated for closing have until Thursday to come up with a plan to increase enrollment or risk shuttering their doors by the end of the school year.

The schools were on a list of 26 "at-risk" schools the Archdiocese of New York singled out in November for closing.

The 12, along with 14 from the Bronx and Manhattan, have seen dramatic decreases in student enrollment that have led the archdiocese to prop them up with millions of dollars in subsidies just to pay their bills.

Each of the schools has the option of submitting a proposal to a regional board laying out its case for remaining open.

But archdiocesan officials say it won't be easy for the schools to get their names off the closure list.

"I'll be honest: It will be a fairly high bar," said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

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Several schools have waged eleventh-hour appeals to donors in an effort to stave off closure.

Students at St. Peter's School in Haverstraw performed their version of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is My School and posted it on YouTube.

A parent at St. Augustine's in New City pledged to sell his home and donate the proceeds to the parish, but he may not have to -- the school community has responded with $756,000 in donations since Dec. 3, said Beth Rooney, president of St. Augustine's Home School Association.

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Donors include parents, faculty, alumni, members of the church proper and local business owners, who know they'll be negatively impacted if the more than 170 school families no longer shop and dine in the school's neighborhood, Rooney said.

"It takes a village, and what we've seen clearly is the village coming together in a very short amount of time," she said.

They launched a foundation, Friends of St. Augustine's School, in the wake of November's archdiocesan announcement and will submit a plan to the archdiocese that involves using the donated funds to help cover operating expenses in the 2013-2014 school year. Under the plan, the school will be self-sufficient by the 2014-2015 school year, and the foundation will shift its focus to providing scholarships and upgrading school facilities, Rooney said.

School officials hope to convince the archdiocese that they're willing to sacrifice to keep the school open.

"It's an excellent education in a small, faith-based, family-friendly nurturing environment," Rooney said. "Every child in the school is known by every other child ... and as soon as you walk into the school, you feel like you're part of the family."

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Msgr. Hugh McManus, the pastor of Scarsdale's Church of Our Lady of Fatima, enlisted parents in a letter-writing campaign to the archdiocese.

McManus laid out the dire financial straits the school is facing in a letter to parishioners in January.

McManus said the archdiocese kicked in $325,000 to help the school cover its bills for the academic year that ended in June 2012.

"In denying 26 parish schools further subsidy after this school year, the authorities are acting not out of meanness, but out of something close to desperation," McManus wrote. "They are sacrificing some schools to save the rest. In hospital emergency rooms, this is called triage."

McManus said he's searching "high and low" for benefactors willing to bail out the school at least for the short term. "I ask you to pray up a storm that we will find the necessary funding," McManus wrote.

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Zwilling said fundraising and deep-pocketed donors may not be enough to save the schools. They'll have to show a plan that promises increasing the student population in the years to come.

"It's all really driven by enrollment," Zwilling said. "The archdiocese can't go on spending $30 million to $35 million a year. We simply just can't do that."

The proposals will go to a local board before they're passed on to the archdiocesan officials, who will make a final decision in the coming weeks.

Should the schools close, parents will be given the option of enrolling their child in a Catholic school near their home.

The 12 schools serve some 2,155 students and have experienced a 6 percent enrollment drop since the 2010-11 school year.

Fourteen other Hudson Valley Catholic schools were closed in 2011.

In an effort to prevent future closings, the archdiocese is in the midst of an effort to form regional boards that will oversee the finances of each parish school.

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