Hardy Plumbing
April 27, 2011

Stella Maris: Parents Say Diocese "Putting The Squeeze On Us"

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A group of Stella Maris school parents are charging they have been misled by the Diocese of Rockville Centre and the school's hierarchy, even after raising a half million dollars over the past few years – money they thought was used to balance the budget. Worse, the parents charge the diocese has no intention of keeping the school open despite putting the squeeze on them for a lot more.

The diocese has asked the parents to assume hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt – while the diocese charges them "exorbitant" interest on the money. But parents charge fiscal mismanagement has been deliberately hidden – even from school board members – to keep the flow of donations coming in, even while the diocese mulls shutting down the school.

The Independent talked to a half dozen parents last week, including former school board members and some major contributors. This newspaper e-mailed Bishop William Murphy, and other diocese officials on Friday – Good Friday – asking for comment. Instead Thomas Ranker, general counsel for the diocese, returned the call within hours. He suggested The Independent not pursue the story. "I want to remind you we consider some of the stuff [in the e-mail] to be defamatory."

The school gets little financial support from the diocese and has always depended on generous contributions in addition to tuition, which costs about $5500 for the first child and upwards of $9000 for a second from the same family. In a typical year parents raise an additional $200,000 or so, from contributions, fundraisers etc. They were shocked to find out a couple weeks ago, that under the principal Jane Peters Stella Maris amassed a massive deficit.

Parents subsequently learned it began accumulating in 2007 when the shortfall was about $40,000. "Had they told us then we could have addressed it," one parent said.

"The pastors knew of the debt," said Sean Dolan, public relations director for the diocese. The diocese notified them. An intervention committee was sent to the school. He said it was possible the burgeoning debt wasn't fully communicated to parents.

Jennifer Fowkes, who has three children in Stella Maris, scoffed at the notion the diocese was forthcoming about the deficit. "They are so dishonest," she commented. "It's almost as if they want it to close."

Now the school owes the diocese $280,000 which the diocese wants parents to pay off, though it will suspend payments temporarily – but charge eight percent interest for the unpaid balance. The diocese has recently infused $90,000 to stabilize the budget for now, and pledged a matching infusion next year, if a series of conditions are met. "They're impossible to meet," one parent said. "There are no guarantees they won't close the doors in January." At a charged meeting last Wednesday Sister JoAnne Callahan reiterated what it would take to keep the doors open beyond June. "We told her we had $200,000 we could contribute right now, and she blew us off," a parent said, in all, as much as $600,000 is needed, they added. The Independent contacted Sr. Callahan but was told, "she won't be contacting you," by Ranker.

"Sister JoAnne didn't scoff at the contribution [$200,000]," Dolan, who was at the meeting, said. "There are strings attached to it. Maybe a year from now we'll be in the same boat again."

He said the demands of the parents were unrealistic. "Just because you give money doesn't mean you have a disproportionate say. We all have a common interest to keep the school open."

The diocese wants the parents to guarantee 102 students will attend the school. But many have already pulled their children and enrolled in Our Lady of the Hamptons on Southampton, which has now reached capacity. One problem is Peters has been doling out scholarships far in excess of what the school's scholarship fund can cover, including the child of her landlord, several of the parents who came forward and at least two other sources said. Peters has not returned repeated requests for comments and insiders said the diocese has muzzled her. None of the allegations could be substantiated by The Independent.

Dolan said these charges "have to be looked at" but pointed out Peters in the past "significantly changed the financial situation the school for the better" and that "she was responsible for an upward surge of enrollments" when the trend in other Catholic schools was downward.

Dolan said he is not aware of how many scholarship students are enrolled in the school but he acknowledged 102 paying students would have to be enrolled if Stella Maris is to remain open.

There is also an endowment of about $600,000 that is under the control of Monsignor Donald M. Hanson, the pastor of Most Holy Trinity Parish in East Hampton who was until recently the ranking clergy at Stella Maris and board chairman. Parents said the interest from the endowment goes to the school but the principal will revert to Most Holy Trinity should Stella Maris fold. The parents want the money spent to keep Stella Maris open. Dolan said only the interest was earmarked for the school and that the principal couldn't be used in that manner. He wasn't aware how much was left in the fund.

Father Hanson and the current school board chairman, Father Michael Reider of St. Therese of Lisieux of Montauk, have repeatedly stonewalled parents, they think, deliberately.

Peters was roundly criticized for her lack of business acumen, though most parents felt her actions were not criminal. Still, parents would like to see an independent audit of the money and where it went, and depending on the results, a criminal investigation if warranted.

At the heart of the dispute is the love the parents hold for the school. "It's an excellent school," one said. "We want out kids to graduate from here. That's why we are doing this." But the diocese's austerity budget cuts many of the programs "that make the school special," said one parent. "That's why we send our kids here, for those programs."

"Austerity is just until things get going again," Dolan said. "The parents have to think long and hard" about cost savings measures, like combining classes, Dolan said.

One parent charged that Peters' "missionary work" caused the school to hemorrhage money. He said the number of students with special needs skyrocketed, causing teachers "to teach to the lowest common denominator."

The parents want to remain anonymous at this time because they fear "retribution" against their children. "It's already happened," several said. In one case, a parent who was the school's largest donor was thrown off the school board –even though, numerous sources said, he donated $100,000 to the school. Others say spouses and friends of the teachers and administration would show up for "Free Lunch Friday" and that relatives of the teachers and administrators were hired, some for "no show jobs."

"These are diversions," Dolan said. He acknowledged, though, "all these things have to be looked at. We have to get back to the parents. We need more effective communication," Dolan acknowledged. "But the diocese will not be bullied."

Fowkes said Stella Maris has the second highest tuition on Long Island, and that parents probably raise more additional funds than is prevalent at other schools.

This not the first time the diocese attempted to persuade this newspaper from following up a story that might prove damaging to the church. Please see a related article elsewhere in this issue.

Peters and Callahan sent an e-mail to parents Monday afternoon: It read in part: "Please know that this is not the first time our little school has faced a big challenge. The important thing is to keep our focus on the vision, which is wonderful and well worth preserving. Join us on May 1st to hear the many ways Catholic education has served our graduates, and how grateful they are for having had such a great foundation."

But it, warned, parents had only until next Wednesday to commit their children to attend the school next semester.

  1. print email
    Stella Maris
    April 27, 2011 | 07:52 PM

    The sooner this school closes the better. The principal has brainwashed parent. This school is not as good as everyone had been led to believe. I wish I had found out sooner. This school needs to be shut down

    One who knows the truth
  2. print email
    April 30, 2011 | 11:15 AM

    This is the worst article written to date by the biggest piece of crap paper going

    Kate Middleton
  3. print email
    Stella Maris
    May 02, 2011 | 06:45 PM

    This article contains a number of statements that either hedge or exagerate the truth. I have been a teacher at Stella Maris for seven years, and have seen no evidence of malfeasence during this time span. Foe those of us who love and work in this school, the emergence of what can only be considered to be personality politics is saddening in the extreme. Those of us who comprise the faculty at Stella Maris are commited to delivering the highest possible quality of education to our students. We work hard, and we work for very little money, and I feel that the lack of support shown for the school is demeaning and insulting. A plethora of heresay and half truths have caused parents to stampeed away from our school. This rather scurrilous article is an example of the sort of jounalism that while I am sure it sells papers, is of extremely questionable accuracy.

    L. Barry Cummings
  4. print email
    A resonse
    May 02, 2011 | 07:11 PM

    This is the editor of the newspaper as well as the writer. While I appreciate your comments Mr. Cummings I feel compelled to address your baseless and insulting accusations. The article was based on interviews with no fewer than 10 parents and school insiders. Diocesan officials from the Bishop on down were asked to respond to each and every allegation and all refused, instead having a lawyer call and threaten the newspaper. Our paper is fee -- we don't need to sell papers. We do have a reputation for getting at the truth -- Google Bill McGintee -- and the truth is parents who have given a half-million dollars are being asked to put up that much more--with no guarantees the school will remain open. All agree it is a good school, and they love it--which is why they came forward. You are employed there, of course you want to kill the messenger. I suggest you demand the diocese hierarchy allow the parents to bring in an independent auditor to examine the books. And then instead of name calling, the facts will be revealed. Otherwise, you'll be out of a job. You can blame me, or you can blame the church for refusing to divulge the truth to you.

    Rick Murphy, Editor
  5. print email
    May 04, 2011 | 04:32 PM

    The school just completed an audit this year. It is done every three years, and it IS done by an independent company. This article is not "100 percent factual," as stated in your Editorial Mr. Murphy, and shame on you for attacking some of the people who have kept this school going for years with false accusations.

    Sag Harbor
  6. print email
    The Article Speaks The Truth
    May 08, 2011 | 06:34 PM

    The article, is the true story about what is going on at stella Maris. I have a child who goes to the school. I voiced my objections to the principal about things mention in the article, and my child has been shunned by her and the staff, and my calls have not been returned. This all happened before the news broke. I feel bad for the parents especially Mrs. Fowks, who worked so hard for the school. You were fooled! I am also sad, that I too was fooled or brainwashed by this principal. I should have payed attention to my instincts. The diocese, has always wanted to close this school and I am thankful that this has finally happened. We should always protect our children.

    One Who Knows The Truth
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