School closing, parents stunned
January 31, 2008

By David Benoit
Special to the Reporter

In a newly renovated basement at St. Mary's School on Dorchester Avenue in South Boston, parents waited anxiously for a priest in dark brown robes to speak. They knew bad news was coming, and it was palpable.

"Are you going to cry," one woman asked another.

"I already did."

Then Rev. Jerzy Auguscik, OFM Conv., took the microphone and, in a halting voice, delivered the blow.

"Since June 2003, our enrollment at Saint Mary's School has dropped rapidly - 45 percent," he said. "I see the numbers have dropped down and down. I had no option than to consider to close the school. It is going to be closed by the end of June."

And with that, the Friday evening meeting exploded. For 35 minutes parents responded voraciously to the pastor's decision. Venomous attacks spewed with a mix of reason, anger and distress. Pleading came from both sides of the aisle.

"You didn't even care," shouted one mother. "You don't even know one kid's name."

"I know it is painful, believe me I had no option but to go and take such a step," Auguscik responded.

The pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish, which operates the parish-based elementary school, never once raised his voice, even if parents didn't always offer the same. He stated over and over again the numbers making the school's chances improbable.

"There are financial problems. If we have less kids, we have less money," he said over a din. "We lost 90 students, 90 students that could provide a lot of income."

Since last year, the enrollment fell from 148 to 105. Estimates put next year's numbers another 20 lower, only 85 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Principal Cathy Starck said that number came from the graduating class and the estimates of students that would leave for exam schools.

The decision to close came from Auguscik alone, though it was approved by the Archdiocese, according to Sister Kathleen Fitz Simmons, the Archdiocese's interim superintendent, who attended the meeting.

"Try to understand, if the number of students keep going down, you can't keep the school open," Auguscik pleaded. "Believe me, I can do nothing."

Starck agreed in an interview this week.

"Because of the cost of education and teachers salary there is no way 85 children, their tuition cannot pay for any of that," she said.

But parents overwhelmingly rejected Auguscik's arguments, most focusing on their exclusion from the decision. This meeting was the first public discussion of the closing. Parishioners and parents had been hearing rumors for more than a year, but were never involved. On arrival, some were still unaware.

"I don't understand why they just couldn't have told us and let us discuss an option," Linda Holt said after the meeting. "We could have tried to save it."

Danielle Muldowney, who would have been sending her second child to St. Mary's school next year, asked if there was a chance for one year to assess the situation.

Auguscik answered, "That was what we did last year."

The crowd erupted. Many contended he never wanted to give the school a chance, that he never walked the halls or went to events. Some asked why they couldn't meet with South Boston's other parochial schools - St. Brigid's and Gate of Heaven - to discuss their possible merger. The issue of why there wasn't enough money was raised multiple times. Questions came about a Harvest Festival that made considerable money and the Bingo night going on at that very moment, which brings in considerable money every Friday.

Fitz Simmons tried to take the microphone from Auguscik to address concerns about where to send children, but got virtually nowhere. Parents refused to hear other options, wanting to quarrel with Auguscik instead.

Auguscik was asked why the teachers and staff had only been informed that afternoon.

"I am the pastor of this parish," he said. "I am not the boss of this school."

He then tried to hand the microphone to the Starck, quietly sitting off to the side, who shook her head, silent tears in her eyes.

Molly Pedriali, the school's secretary, later said he had "thrown the principal under the bus," and Starck admitted she felt the same.

"I was upset at this answer because he is, actually, my boss," she said by phone this week. "I am the leader of the education department and the teachers and such, but he is above me."

The first time Auguscik had come to her was this school year, "in recent months."

"He came to me concerned with the numbers and because of the low enrollment and the small deficit," she said. But when asked if there were meetings about saving the school she said there were "none that I know of."

After the meeting dissolved, parents stood in groups for more than an hour, discussing their options and berating Auguscik. Some spoke to Fitz Simmons about their future options.

"We have plenty of room in the new Pope John II School, if that is what the parents choose," Fitz Simmons said, speaking of the new five-campus plan for Dorchester's parochial schools. Registration for Boston's Catholic schools started Sunday, two days after the announcement.

The ten teachers employed will have options as well.

"They will be the second tier of candidates for the new school," Fitz Simmons said. Dorchester's teachers are the first option. Another option is being placed on the "preferred hiring list" which is sent to all parochial schools.

Howie Vinton, a parish council member and father of a fourth grader, said he and his wife would be considering the Columbia Road campus of Pope John Paul II Academy, but said South Boston's parochial school options were too expensive.

During the meeting Vinton questioned if there was a plan to use funds from selling the school for the new $2.5 million Polish parish center being built. Auguscik denied the center was considered in his decision. Vinton then publicly resigned his position.

"There was no inkling of this whatsoever," he said afterward.

Aneta Pokorski, whose son is in the first grade, was audibly angered with her pastor in the meeting, though she later toned down her message.

"He could have told us a year ago. He doesn't want anything to do with it. They didn't even ask for extra money, no tuition hike, not one thing," she said. "This is the school we want our son to go to. This is the school we went to."

Starck told the students on Monday, and they had questions.

"They were waiting for the pastor to come over and waited for him and he didn't show," she said. "My concern is just for the children, making sure they are provided a safe learning environment

Auguscik &endash; who declined direct comment to the Reporter, asking that Starck comment instead - had been definitive in calling his decision final, but parents seem ready for a fight.

"There is still hope here," Pedriali said, gesturing toward Archdiocesan officials whom she had spoken with. "They are giving us hope."

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