April 27, 2011
Parents Say Diocese "Putting The Squeeze On Us"
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.
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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.