It was news a lot of people had been waiting for, and were overjoyed to receive. The New York Archdiocese sent out an electronic “Iris Blue alert” Tuesday evening advising Kingston Catholic school families that they will not be merging Kingston Catholic and St. Joseph’s schools, as they had originally planned. Rather, both will stay open.
On Wednesday morning, Kingston Catholic Principal Jill Albert broke her year-long media silence to gleefully announce the news; Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, also sent out a press release announcing both schools will remain open and self-sustaining, under the eyes of a new regional board.
By Wednesday afternoon, dozens of St. Joseph’s students, clad in green plaid skirts, white shirts and green plaid ties bounced up Wall Street, cheering and chanting, “Go St. Joe’s” at the top of their lungs.
St. Joseph’s had found itself in the Diocesan crosshairs of “at-risk for closure” two years in a row as part of a new diocesan education plan called Pathways to Excellence. The goal is to merge or close underperforming Catholic schools, streamlining and create a kind of “tax layer” for every parish to pay toward Catholic education, rather than having one single parish to shoulder the costs of an attached school. Earlier this year, they announced that the plan called for closing St. Joe’s and leaving Kingston Catholic the only parochial school in town. After multiple meetings with school and community leaders, the diocese agreed to unite both campuses under one administration and host first through eighth grades on the St. Joseph’s campus, leaving only the preschool and kindergarten programs at Kingston Catholic campus.
It was a proposal which further tore at the rapidly unraveling tapestry of the Kingston Catholic education families, who were already embattled from the archdiocese announcing St. Joseph’s at-risk designation, with stressed-out families from both schools playing the blame game.
Pathway to stability
McNiff credited both Kingston Catholic and St. Joseph Schools’ “aggressive student enrollment projections” in part for his decision. He also noted that “enduring stability at both schools will depend on achieving strategic goals and milestones over the next several months.” McNiff added that in the event those goals are not met, the regional board may need to again revisit a possible consolidation of Catholic schools.
“I know the local school communities are pleased both St. Joseph’s School and Kingston Catholic will remain open to continue to offer our children fine educations, rooted in our Catholic faith,” stated McNiff in his press release. “Thanks to the hard work and strong leadership of the Ulster Catholic community, these schools were able to develop a plan to address enrollment and the resulting financial issues that originally made them candidates for a possible merger this June. We listened to the concerns of local leadership as part of our ongoing dialogue, and I am grateful to the various constituencies that worked so tirelessly to establish a foundation for both continued educational excellence and financial stability.”
New York diocesan schools spokeswoman Fran Davies said that it was the ad hoc advisory committee’s findings that swayed the diocese into allowing both schools to remain open and function as-is. Davies said they put together a solid business plan by which to increase enrollment and reduce deficits, with the ultimate end goal of sustainability. Davies said that the newly formed regional board which oversees Ulster, Sullivan and Orange counties would hereafter annually assess the schools to ensure they continue to progress.
A little timely advice
The ad hoc advisory committee hired the consulting firm Catholic School Management which, according to their website, offers, “consultative guidance and innovative thinking with regard to the unique and distinct management needs of Catholic elementary and secondary schools.” Catholic School Management President John Burke said he worked with the committee to create subcommittees to tackle various aspects of a sound business plan, such as staffing, enrollment management, facility use and more. He said that his firm was paid for by St. Joseph’s and Kingston Catholic parents and grandparents, but refused to disclose his fees. “It is important to know that the parents and grandparents coming together like this is exactly what needs to occur in order for Catholic school education to go into the future,” said Burke.
Albert said she was at first puzzled and surprised by the merger announcement, considering her school had never been on the at-risk list. She said the reaction of her schools’ parents ran the gamut from agreeable and accepting, to that of anger and sadness. As for the reaction of parents to the latest announcement, she said it was pure joy. Albert said her school has been open and educating for 145 years, and will continue to do so for another 145 years. Albert said she wants to be sensitive to St. Mary of the Snow community, since the Saugerties school will indeed close.
“There is no doubt that these reviews are painful for all involved, especially for our friends at St. Mary of the Snow,” said Albert. “The Kingston Catholic community is committed to doing all that we can to help our counterparts through this difficult transition. Having been through similar reviews in the past at Kingston Catholic, and having actually gone through mergers before, we know that in the long run, the process is a healthy one.”
Additionally, a joint Kingston Catholic-St. Joseph school advisory board will be formed to support the regional board and help to implement a local strategic plan to assist both schools in sustaining their futures, which will be open to the St. Mary of the Snow community.