PARK SLOPE – On Tuesday morning at the corner of 4th Avenue and 9th Street, dozens of families stood outside the Holy Family – St. Thomas Aquinas Church. The families were from the Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Williamsburg and were chanting and waving signs. As trucks and cars passed by, the drivers beeped their horns in support, which made the families cheer loudly. Support was high, and so was the optimism.
But these families weren’t looking to spread any encouragement or unite any communities. They were looking to save their school from being shut down.
“It was all business as usual last week,” explains Lauren Daquet, one of the parents at the rally. “The school had already sent out supply lists, and parents had already bought things. There was enrollment right up until August. And then came that email.”
Last Thursday, the Diocese of Brooklyn sent out an email to the families of both Queen of the Rosary and St. Gregory the Great in Flatbush that the two Catholic academies would be closing by August 31st, along with four others in Queens, on the heels of last year’s closure that saw two Brooklyn schools close and two merge. Parents say they feel blindsided and are outraged by the decision.
“I never saw it coming,” says Melissa Campbell, who’s daughter has attended St. Gregory the Great since nursery school, and is now a rising 8th grader. “There was no communication. There wasn’t any indication that the school had a problem. If the HAA (Home Academy Association) had known, we would’ve worked together to try to see how to solve the money problem.”
According to a press release by the Diocese, the COVID19 pandemic hurt the finances and enrollment of the two academies, which made it “impossible for them to reopen for the coming school year.” While Queen of the Rosary did have enrollments “bumped up to 175 because a nearby academy closed,” it was still 20% less than what is required to maintain financial stability and decent class sizes, said Adriana Rodriguez, the Diocese’s press secretary. St. Gregory the Great, on the other hand, saw a decline from 201 students in 2017 to 175 in 2019.
The Diocese went on to explain that both Queen of the Rosary and St. Gregory the Great had seen a decline in enrollment over the course of five years, and also registration is “significantly” lower than in previous years, due to the economic downturn from the pandemic. As if to encourage families to enroll their children in another Catholic academy, each will receive a one-time $500 grant from the Diocese through the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Trust, as long as the families have met all financial obligations.
In an emailed statement, John Quaglione, the Diocese’s Deputy Press Secretary, explained the finances of both schools. He said Queen of the Rosary has a deficit of $872,000 while St. Gregory the Great’s deficit is at $750,000 – both due to outstanding liabilities and unpaid tuition.
“We understand this is a distressing time for parents and students of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy,” Quaglione’s statement reads. “It is never easy to close a school, but the financial situation has left no other choice. The difficult decision was made after a lengthy, prayerful process, inclusive of numerous factors and individuals.”
But the parent communities disagree with what the Diocese says about their schools. In a letter sent out as a rebuttal by Queen of the Rosary, the parent community there stated that enrollment has gone up, while also wondering why a merger wasn’t an option.
Both parent communities also say they never were told in advance that their schools were in debt, nor was there any warning that closing was possible.
“The accountant told me there was no debt,” Campbell says. “They’re not being transparent.”
“If we had known two years ago, we would’ve come out in full force,” says Javier Cortez, the president of Queen of the Rosary’s HAA who helped organize Tuesday’s rally. “They say it was a board vote, but all of the members were not present. Why not involve us in the decision?”
“Where’s the paperwork to show what we owe?” asks Bonnie Romano, who’s two grandsons attend Queen of the Rosary. “Show us the documents so we can save our school.”
Later on Tuesday, a Zoom meeting took place for both schools at different times. The Diocese, led by Thomas Chadzutko, Superintendent of Schools explained to parents why they made the decision to close their schools. The meeting left many largely dissatisfied and with many questions left unanswered. Cortez felt the meeting leaned too much towards explaining how students enroll and take school buses to other Catholic schools, and also noticed the numbers the Diocese gave regarding the debt was different from what was being reported in other news articles. Meanwhile, for St. Gregory the Great, Campbell claims the meeting was “very scripted” and the parents were not allowed to speak or see each other. If anyone typed questions into the chat section, those questions were ignored. She also says the numbers given did not match with the school’s account.
In response, the Diocese says, “A majority of the questions were answered at the Zoom meeting and anyone who wasn’t will be responded to via email.The financials were confirmed by the accountant.”
Cortez had suggested that a master plan be developed that would allow the school one year to salvage itself. That idea was dismissed by Chadzutko, and in an emailed statement, Adriana Rodriguez explained, “Dr. Chadzutko painted a clear financial picture to the parents and we hope they now realize that a one year plan and the current $872,000 in liabilities would be insurmountable.”
Rodriguez also added, “We understand the frustration at what feels like a shock to parents. But there had been a State of the Academy meeting held in June 2019, that had less than 20 people in attendance, which highlighted financial areas of concern leading into the current school year that just ended.”
According to Cortez, while it is true that less than 20 families attended that meeting last year, Chadzutko was not present as he was supposed to be. Cortez also forwarded an email to Bklyner an overview of topics for that June 2019 meeting, which clearly shows financial concerns were not part of the agenda.
One thing that both Cortez and Campbell are wondering about is whether any PPP loans were given to the schools, and how much did the Diocese get from the CARES Act.
“COVID19 affected our enrollment outreach,” says Campbell. “We take responsibility for that. But, the $250,000 in PPE money? Where is it?”
She also adds, “Do not take our money from education to pay for your sex allegation.”
Upon request for comment, Rodriguez says “The Brooklyn Diocese only used PPP money to keep people employed. The PPP funds are only being used on eligible expenses as defined by the SBA, like salaries and medical insurance.”
There is also suspicion that the two academies are being closed simply to accommodate local public schools that would need extra space for social distancing when schools reopen in September.
“It was always rumored at our school that DOE had wanted to purchase our property,” says Cortez. “It is prime Williamsburg real estate and perfect for to serve as a public school, move in ready and perfect for social distancing.” The three-story school is located at 11 Catherine Street, between Metropolitan Avenue and Graham Street, in the heart of Williamsburg.
“We are saddened by the Archdiocese’s school closures and there is absolutely no truth to claims that we had any involvement in their decision. We stand ready to support families in finding placements in public schools if they choose and our work to find potential space would never displace a school community,” DOE spokesperson Kate O’Hanlon emailed Bklyner.
The Diocese claims that none of those accusations are true.
“The Diocese of Brooklyn would never sacrifice a Catholic school to accommodate another entity. The schools are being closed because of the declining enrollment and the financial situation. And the uncertainty COVID has created pushed the situation,” Rodriguez said in an emailed statement.
Cortez also points out that according to the Diocese’s bylaws, Superintendent Chadzutko should never have served on a Board of Members or even vote in it, because he is an employee of the Diocese.
A week after the announcement shocked these school communities, there still are questions left unanswered. Queen of the Rosary’s rebuttal letter has not yet received a reply.
But both academies are not giving up. More protests are being planned, although there’s no word if the two schools will protest together yet. At the same time, it has set up a Change.org petition to keep the school open, with 1,745 signatures out of 2,500 needed. St. Gregory the Great is doing the same with 758 out the 1,000 needed. The parents there have also started a GoFundMe to raise $300,000, though only $50 has been raised as of Thursday afternoon. Some parents at the other school are considering the same thing.
But even if both schools raised the required money, it may not keep their schools open.
“The decision to close remains as the majority of the families have already re-registered in new academies,” Rodriguez explains.
As per Tuesday, the parents were wondering what to do next with their children’s education, amidst a pandemic that still has Brooklyn in a risky situation, not to mention the new school year starts in less than two months.
“How can you find a new school during a pandemic?” says Bonnie Romano.
While the parents of these two schools feel blindsided and angry, they also feel betrayed.
“This is a religious school, and we have no support,” Campbell says sadly. She added she isn’t sure if she would enroll her daughter in another Catholic school, despite her faith, because of how the Diocese is now treating the families of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy.
As the rally wrapped up on Tuesday, Cortez used a megaphone to demand answers. One reason why Queen of the Rosary’s families gathered in Park Slope was because it is where the office of Auxiliary Bishop James Massa, the vicar of education. To Cortez, it was symbolic so the parents can show Massa how strong they were.
“Please respond to us!” Cortez said. “Please give us answers. Please respond to our community. We hope you will pray for us, even though you are behind those windows.”