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Protesters Rally to Save Bronx Schools

By Patrick Wall | December 13, 2012 11:53am

BRONX — When St. Jerome School first opened its doors in Mott Haven in 1871, Abraham Lincoln had been dead only a few years, Thomas Edison had yet to perfect the electric light bulb and The Bronx was not part of New York City.

“This school has been here for 141 years,” principal Joseph Puglia said at a rally Wednesday to fight plans to close it.

“If we lined everybody up that graduated from this school, it would go from here all the way down to the Archdiocese of New York," he said, pointing toward its headquarters in Manhattan.

In the Soundview section of The Bronx, Blessed Sacrament School took root more than 75 years ago and counts Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor among its famous alumni.

Yet for all their history, both schools fell on a list of 26 Catholic elementary schools — eight of them in The Bronx — and one high school that the Archdiocese of New York is considering closing next year as part of a restructuring effort to shore up its budget.

“These are difficult, but necessary decisions,” Archdiocese Superintendent Timothy McNiff said in a statement last month when the list was announced.

Many of the schools suffer from shrinking enrollments and steep deficits, which cost the archdiocese millions of dollars each year to fill, officials said. They have given each school until Jan. 3 to propose a credible plan to get their balance sheets in the black or face closure.

But at separate rallies Wednesday, supporters of St. Jerome and Blessed Sacrament assailed this offer as unrealistic and said the schools’ financial woes stem from the low-income communities they serve.

“How do you explain to elementary school children that because we are a poor community, Blessed Sacrament will no longer serve as their safe haven?” principal Herminia Roman, who did not participate in the rally, wrote in a letter to families.

“140 years it took to build,” St. Jerome parent Kelvin Ramirez said at that school’s rally. “Misguided and ill-informed people will destroy it in 30 days.”

About 100 Blessed Sacrament students and supporters rode three yellow school buses from The Bronx to the archdiocese headquarters at First Avenue and E. 56th Street Wednesday morning.

Between chants, children from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade explained their fondness for the school — attentive teachers, peaceful hallways, wired classrooms, Girl Scouts and band, the Harvest Dance and the talent show. Many said their siblings and parents attended the school before them.

“I’m just happy there,” said Nichole Carrillo, 11, as tears streaked down her cheeks. “I can smile all the time.”

Parents said the school’s dwindling enrollment — down from 500 students in 2004 to 175 this year — and a $400,000 annual deficit reflect the hardship of local families who can’t afford tuition.

"We're a poor community," said parent association President Ivelisse Segui. "Everybody here is making sacrifices to put their children in this school."

Parents have launched a website with a PayPal account and reached out to some corporations to try to raise $1.2 million by Jan. 3 — the projected three-year budget gap the school needs to prove it can plug to stay open.

“My Christmas wish,” said Matthew Munoz, 11, “is to keep the school open.”

Outside St. Jerome, where parents gathered for an after-school rally, State Sen. José Serrano said the school has been a “beacon of hope” for one wave of immigrants after another whose value cannot be measured in dollars.

“It’s important to look beyond the financial concerns and look towards the social implications of losing this school,” he said, noting that he received his First Communion and his son was baptized at the parish church.

St. Jerome’s budget shortfall amounts to about $500,000 per year, officials said — a hole the school is unlikely to fill in the next few weeks.

“Give me a break,” said Puglia, the principal. “Who do I go to for that kind of money?”

Last year, 26 elementary and four high schools were closed in the archdiocese, which includes The Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and several upstate counties.

Both rounds of closures are part of a three-year restructuring, laid out in a 2010 document called “Pathways to Excellence,” which shifts control of most school budgets from parishes to regional boards.

The idea is to eliminate under-enrolled and heavily subsidized schools, so that each region can operate without support from the archdiocese, said the Rev. Joseph Franco, chairman of the new Northwest/South Bronx region.

Steadily declining enrollment combined with rising costs due to old buildings and teaching staffs that no longer include many inexpensive nuns have created major school budget gaps, Franco said. Each year, the archdiocese spends tens of millions of dollars to close them, he added.

Franco led a panel this fall that evaluated each of the region’s 21 schools based on its enrollment, test scores and budget deficit, among other criteria. Those in the region selected for closure — including St. Jerome — landed lowest on the list, Franco said.

This round of closings, which would occur in June 2013, should be the last for some time, he added.

“God help us,” Franco said. “You can only have something like this every generation or so, because it takes away confidence.”