By Jeff Gallatin
A plan to close St. Richard School at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, which was formally revealed Friday, is already drawing a backlash from parents and graduates.
Rev. Charles J. Stollenwerk, pastor of St. Richard Parish, sent a letter home with students Friday outlining the plan to close the K-8 school, which has been open since 1950. He also announced the plan over the school PA system to students, put it in the church bulletin and announced it during Sunday services.
Stollenwerk said Monday he had presented the school’s tight financial situation and shrinking enrollment to Cleveland Catholic Diocese Bishop Richard Lennon, who granted his approval for the move.
In his letter, Stollenwerk said the school’s academic preparation of students to pursue Catholic secondary school education has been unquestioned, adding that the school administration, faculty and staff have been tireless in their efforts working toward excellence.
“At the same time, for the past seven years, we have been addressing our school’s financial problems,” he said. “In November 2012, I spoke to you of the difficulty of keeping St. Richard School open going forward. There are key factors that have contributed to our decision to close now. First is the change in demographics in North Olmsted over the years. It is no longer a place in which families choose to settle. The city itself has declined in population. The birthrate has reached the level of the 1920s. People have chosen to move to Avon, Avon Lake, North Ridgeville and to the south of North Olmsted.
“Attempts to fund raise and appeals have fallen short resulting in our inability to overcome the deficit. As you know, the Diocese of Cleveland has been subsidizing us for a number of years. We needed to respond to the diocese by becoming self-sufficient, but were unable to do so. As a result, the debt is still pending. With each year, the cost to educate increases while our efforts to become financially viable have not been successful.”
Current enrollment at the school is 248 students, down from more than 500 at one point. Annual tuition for parishioners is $2,950, $3,950 for nonparishioners. Church officials and parishioners noted there has been discussion of the parish’s financial woes in various ways for several years.
John Lasko, head of the parish’s finance council, said the problems did not develop in a short period of time.
“This problem has been building for a few years,” he said. ‘We have been getting support from the diocese for several years and making attempts to deal with the financial issues. But collections are down, the church general fund is down and income in general is down. This is unfortunate for the students, for the parents, for the church and for the community.”
However, some parents and parishioners are questioning the decision, as well as some of Stollenwerk’s assertions about the cause of the financial issues and eventual need to close.
Mary Winchester, who has two children who attend St. Richard and third who was preparing to, said she and other parents do not believe that church leaders are making enough of an effort to try to keep the church open.
“There have been meetings to discuss the problems, like the big church town hall meeting in November,” she said. “But the father sat there listening to the ideas about what to do, but I don’t think he intended to do anything, I think he wanted to close the school down even then.”
She cited as one example many parents willingness to do fundraising and other events, but said Stollenwerk did not want to do that.
“Other churches have bingo and other events, why couldn’t we do that?” she said. “He wouldn’t even let us do that.”
When asked, Stollenwerk said fundraising could not solve all the financial issues.
“It goes deeper than that,” he said. “Many parents are well-intentioned, but I don’t think they realize the depth of the situation. It’s bigger than holding one or two events.”
Winchester said some parents have attempted to contact the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland to seek the help, but said they have not been satisfied with the results to date.
“They really haven’t offered much assistance,” she said. “I think they’re willing to let the pastor do what he wants.”
Stollenwerk said the diocese has been helping with support for years, but said it couldn’t go on forever.
“At some point, you look at the numbers and realize it can’t keep going,” he said.
Attorney and former longtime North Olmsted police officer Steven W. Wolf attended the school and said he is devastated by the news, while disputing Stollenwerk’s beliefs as to what caused the problems.
“The letter the pastor sent places blame on the city. ‘North Olmsted is no longer a place in which families choose to settle,’ that’s nonsense,” Wolf said.
He said North Olmsted is aging, but said those families are staying in the city. He said newer families are moving in, but have “shied away” from parochial education.
“There are many reasons parochial schools cannot attract students,” he said. “The city isn’t one of them.”
Winchester said many parents are considering different alternatives.
“We have upset children, I had two crying children, there were teachers crying in the classroom,” she said. “Some of us are scrambling to find other schools. Others are still trying to find ways to get more money and keep it open.”
Stollenwerk said the church is looking at events like open houses where other schools come in to let the parents know what other schools are available to attend.
He said he understands the emotions involved with the parents.
“Some are angry, others understand about the finances,” he said. “When something is around a long time, be it a person, school or church, you think it’s always going to be there. Then when you lose that something, it’s very difficult.”