GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 30, 2013

Parents decry St. Ann closing action

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — St. Ann School parents shuffling through their mail Thursday said Monday they felt “shocked” and “disappointed” when they unfolded letters sent from the school to notify families of the remaining 90 students that the 128-year-old school was closing in June due to a decline in enrollment and some say, due to promised millions in funds that never arrived.

When noted greater Boston non-profit fund-raiser Jack Connors vowed to raise $4.5 million for St. Ann School in 2008, enrollment grew, peaking at 189 students by 2010.

But, when those promised funds never showed, enrollment slipped again, never reaching the target number of 224 to 261 students. Without the money, the school was unable to perform planned renovations on the building and upgrades to equipment, according to school trustees’ vice chairman David Girard said Monday.

“That was the expectation — that there was going to be a huge change in the plans and the fund-raising,” Girard said. “That’s what induced people to get interested. The building was going to be completely renovated from top to bottom and when that didn’t happen, that certainly was a disappointment.”

The Campaign for Catholic Schools raised just over $265,000 in pledges for St. Ann School over the past five years. But, the other 94 percent of the promised millions “just never showed up,” Girard said. Connors did not return calls made to his office for comment Monday. School trustees’ chairman Joseph Parisi III refused to comment on the school’s closing when reached by telephone Monday.

Girard said the school ends each year with empty pockets and usually turns to the Archdiocese of Boston for help.

He noted, however, that the archdiocese has reached hard times, too, and spokesperson for the diocese, Terrence Donilon, said in an interview Friday that the diocese could no longer “subsidize” the school. Girard said the school board waited as long as they could, and when it became clear that there was absolutely no solution, they mailed out the letter.

“We had every intention of keeping it open as long as we possibly could, but we just couldn’t anymore,” Girard said. “When we finally had no choice is when we told (parents).”

Some parents like Lisa Fornero, a former teacher at the school whose son attends pre-kindergarten there, said Monday she wishes the school would have involved parents sooner ,so parents could help raise funds.

Fornero said she attended a parent meeting “a few weeks back” where the board broke down the school’s finances, with Parisi emphasizing that enrollment was down. But neither he n or anyone else told parents that the school faced a potential closure, she said.

“He did not make it seem like, if we didn’t raise a certain amount of money or we didn’t get a certain number of kids there that the school would close,” Fornero said.

“I wish that he had told us how close we were to closing,” she added, “because I feel that maybe the parents would have responded with more urgency considering how much we all love the school and how our kids were doing so wonderfully there.”

Fornero added that had the school’s struggle become public, community members and alumni would have stepped up to the plate, too. Furthermore, Fornero wondered why her father, a regular donor and alumni, had never received a letter from the school soliciting a donation. Parents, she said, had pushed the board to solicit alumni donations, calling it a “logical step,” but those letters never reportedly arrived.

Fornero, who said her son will attend Gloucester Public School in the fall, said she is sad to see her son leave the teacher, friends and school he loves. And she’s upset that the archdiocese will no longer subsidize the school, “pulling the rug out from under children who are starting their religious journey.”

Another mom, Pamela Poulin said her sons, ages 5 and 9, were “devastated” to hear the school they have attended since pre-kindergarten would close.

She said her family is still weighing their options for schooling next year, as they were “extremely shocked” to hear of the school closing. She pointed out the teachers’ dedication to their students and the small family-like community as reasons for her shock and her sons’ devastation that the school would close.

“I guess I always looked on the bright side and thought that hopefully things would have just picked up,” Poulin said.

For Jennifer Fernandes, whose son attends fourth grade at the school and daughters attend second and kindergarten, the “small, quiet” school was a perfect start for her son who has some sensory developmental issues.

The family, like others who spoke to the Times, had already registered to continue attending St. Ann in the fall, leaving little time to choose and enroll in another Catholic school, despite an open house to be held at St. Ann School Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

“It’s kind of hard in May to all of a sudden plan for something else,” Fernandes said. “I think they were still fighting and trying to keep the school open and I respect that. I don’t blame anyone, I’m just sad.”

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.