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Last-Minute Fundraisers Won't Prevent Catholic School Closures, Some Fear

By Patrick Wall | December 18, 2012 7:05am

NEW YORK — Since the Archdiocese of New York informed 27 parochial schools that this academic year could be their last, several parishes have launched their version of a Hail Mary pass.

Supporters of St. Jude School in Inwood are asking every graduate to donate $100 — except basketball legend and St. Jude alumnus Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who they hope will give much more.

Parents at Holy Cross School in Hell's Kitchen are canvassing local businesses and calling alumni in the hopes of securing $250,000 in pledges for each of the next three years.

And parents at Blessed Sacrament School in Soundview, who set up an emergency PayPal account, are praying for a “miracle in The Bronx” — namely $1.2 million in donations by Jan. 3.

But even if these long-shot fundraising efforts succeed, it is not clear the schools will be spared.

“This is a done deal already,” said Kelvin Ramirez, a parent at another threatened Bronx school, St. Jerome. “Any money we raise isn’t going to be good enough.”

He noted that in 2011, during the Archdiocese’s first round of restructuring, all but five out of 32 schools on the initial “at-risk” list were closed.

Late last month, the Archdiocese told 26 elementary schools and one high school they faced closure unless they could present by Jan. 3 a three-year plan proving they can survive financially without the heavy Archdiocese subsidies on which they now rely.

Some of the schools interpreted this as a high-stakes ultimatum — raise in one month the amount of subsidies you would receive over three years, or else.

“It’s just not reasonable,” said Danilo Cruz, a police officer whose three children attend St. Jerome, which requires about $500,000 annually from the Archdiocese to stay afloat.

“There’s not enough time” to raise the money, Cruz added. “And it’s holiday season — the kids are still expecting presents.”

The Archdiocese insists it did not issue ultimatums.

“People have gotten the impression that the Archdiocese has said you must raise a certain amount of money by Jan. 3 if you want to keep your school open,” said spokesman Joseph Zwilling. “That is not the case.”

Zwilling said the final decisions would be based on schools’ long-term plans. Convincing proposals must show increased school revenue, which might include donations, but more likely would focus on enrolling more students — “the best way to eliminate a school’s deficit,” he said.

He cautioned against undue optimism, noting that most of these schools have long suffered from drooping enrollments and ballooning budget gaps that fundraising alone can't fix.

“These schools are on the at-risk list for a reason,” Zwilling said.

Leaders at the schools on the list have handled the news in different ways.

Sister Mary Theresa Dixon, principal of Holy Cross School, said she has allowed parents to solicit pledges from alumni and businesses, while she and the pastor focus on the three-year plan.

But at Blessed Sacrament School, principal Herminia Roman personally appealed to the school community for donations in an emotional letter.

“The Archdiocese has mandated we raise 1.2 million dollars by January 3rd or they will sacrifice our children’s future and close our school,” Roman wrote, apparently referring to the school’s three-year projected deficit. She ended by asking readers to call her to discuss how to “help create a miracle in the Bronx!”

Meanwhile, at St. Jude, some concerned alumni and parents left a long meeting with school leaders last week concerned they had given up on the school.

“We kind of felt that they were just going to let the school close,” said alumnus Michael Jimenez, who helped other school supporters kick-off their own pledge drive.

The principal, David Friedlander, declined an interview request last week and could not be reached Monday.

Certain school leaders have determined their budgets are beyond repair, said Eileen Sweeney, vice president of the Federation of Catholic Teachers, a union that represents lay faculty in Archdiocese schools.

“Some schools aren’t even going to try because they know they can’t come up with a viable plan,” Sweeney said. “The money isn’t there.”

Though the odds may be stacked against the at-risk schools, they are not impossible, according to officials and past history.

Good Shepherd School, an Inwood elementary on the 2011 at-risk list, escaped closure that year by offering the Archdiocese a detailed improvement plan, said Manuel Ramirez, an alumnus who helped craft the proposal.

Part of the plan called for pumped-up fundraising, which they quickly enacted by securing a “major benefactor” and alumni donors, he said. But it also listed specific measures — new technology and extra-curricular programs, a parent association and a rebranding effort — to boost enrollment.

“Money alone’s not going to do it,” Ramirez said. “It’s like an engine that doesn’t have a tune-up — you can fill it full of gas, but it still doesn’t run well.”

Last-minute fundraising cannot close perennial budget gaps caused by rising personnel costs and enrollments deflated by charter school competition, unaffordable tuition and fewer devout Catholics, added the Rev. Joseph Franco, chairman of the Archdiocese’s new Northwest/South Bronx region.

“You can’t do that in a month,” he said. “It’s not realistic.”