St. Joseph Central High School parents appeal closing

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PITTSFIELD — Students enrolled at St. Joseph Central High School should be allowed to finish their education there, a parent group says.

In a formal appeal Monday to the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, six parents cite "spreading confusion, pain and alienation" and ask him to halt a planned 2017 closing of the 119-year-old Catholic school.

"We urge Your Excellency to reconsider by suspending the decision and — instead — taking under advisement the option of an orderly phase-down," the letter states.

Kristina Kisiel, a parent, said Tuesday that she and other members of the new St. Joe Strong support group still want to save the school and see this appeal as a way to buy time.

"Just to keep our options open. At least it gave us some time," she said of the letter.

Mark E. Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, said Tuesday the letter is being reviewed by the bishop. The parents also ask again for a personal meeting with the bishop, which has so far been declined, they say.

The diocese announced Oct. 13 that St. Joe's, the last Catholic high school in Berkshire County, would close at the end of this school year due to low enrollment and an operating deficit of $4.5 million over the last five years.

Parents said they waited to receive written notice of the closing, which came Thursday in an open letter from the bishop to the St. Joe's community.

That message reaffirmed that the bishop saw no alternative to shuttering the school, in part due to the high cost of building maintenance, a drop in tuition-paying international students and the fact that eighth-grade enrollment at three "feeder" schools stands at 38.

"I trust that every option was explored and that the difficult decision we reached was necessary," the bishop wrote.

In their appeal letter to the bishop, a document known under Catholic administrative law as a "remonstratio," the parents say the school should remain open until 2020.

The parents also say it would be impractical to have St. Joe's students attend Catholic high schools in Hampden County. The diocese has said it would help provide financial assistance to families that make that choice.

The letter also questions why the diocese is maintaining Catholic high schools in the Hampden County communities of Westfield and Chicopee — located 13 miles from each other — in light of the St. Joe's closing.

"The plan is to neglect the periphery of the diocese entrusted to Your care," the letter says, "while pulling Catholic high school education back into the diocesan's 'downtown' ... the precise opposite of the Pope's exhortation for bishops to leave the comfortable confines of the cities."

Along with Kisiel, the letter was signed by Lara Aillon-Sohl, Sharon Nealon, Jennifer Scott, Laura Thurston and Tammy Winters.

Sister M. Andrea Ciszewski, superintendent of diocesan schools, said in an interview Tuesday that while St. Joe's has "a wonderful legacy," its enrollment of 68 is not enough to sustain it. "I wish it were higher, but it's not."

As to the request to phase out operations more slowly, she said that would be too costly, since enrollment would gradually fall to a handful of students.

"It's a difficult time. No one wants to ever close a school," Ciszewski said. She noted that other Catholic dioceses in the Northeast, including Hartford, have had to close schools, in part because of changing demographics, including smaller Catholic families.

Ciszewski said the offer of financial support for St. Joe's families to attend Hampden County schools next year stands. "We did put it out there," she said. "They seem to think it's too far, but that may evolve."

Dupont reiterated that the diocese is willing to help Berkshire County families connect with new schools in Hampden County. "Understandably the distance to Westfield is a challenge, but St. Mary's School (in Westfield) is willing to work with parents on easing this transition," he said.

Kisiel, the St. Joe's parent, said members of St. Joe Strong will meet Wednesday night to review financial documents and consider ways to build a case to preserve the Maplewood Avenue school.

"This is essentially about dollars and cents. We know it's not simple," she said.

Dupont, the diocesan spokesman, noted that the "remonstratio" letter from parents relates to a process of closing parishes and churches "and as such does not apply to a school closing."

"The diocese funded St. Joseph's as long as was financially possible, understanding it was the only Catholic secondary school in Berkshire County," Dupont said in an email statement, in response to questions from The Eagle.

He said the diocese isn't immune from economic and demographic changes and noted that neither Franklin nor Hampshire counties is home to any Catholic schools. The only remaining Catholic elementary school in Hampshire County, St. Mary's in Ware, closed in June.

"It is hard to understand (why) anyone with any knowledge of the declining enrollment at St. Joseph would also not understand the serious consequences that decline would have on the future of the school," Dupont said. "The circumstances simply worked against us."


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