Stella Maris Fights for Its Survival

Sag Harbor school was hit hard by financial crisis, preschoolers’ departure

        The future of Stella Maris Catholic Regional School in Sag Harbor has been clouded by reports of financial ruin these past few weeks. The message from the school community and the parishes that support it: We’re not going anywhere. Not yet, anyway.
    Msgr. Donald Hanson of Most Holy Trinity Church in East Hampton released a statement recently to update the parish on the situation. He led off with acknowledgement that the school was “in trouble.”
    Indeed, at the beginning of this school year, some 36 students withdrew right before classes began, in part, it seems, because of the opening of a public preschool program in Sag Harbor. In his statement, Mr. Hanson said that the school budget was already in the red (and the deficit will reach nearly half a million dollars by August); the loss of tuition from the preschoolers has made the situation far more difficult.
    The school, currently attended by about 180 students, is funded by a combination of grants and contributions from the five East End Catholic parishes. It has explored several alternative sources of sustainability. One idea, a partnership with the Catholic Regional School in Southampton, has been rejected by the school’s board as implausible before next September.
    The Diocese of Rockville Centre, which has supervisory authority over Stella Maris, did develop an “austerity budget,” as Mr. Hanson termed it, to help it remain viable through the next years. The diocese also offered to come up with $90,000 to see the school through this year, and a further $90,000 for next year, on the condition that the school board balance its budget by that time.
    The diocese has also assured parents that it will not allow the school to close midyear. If it opens next September, it will complete the year.
    Jane Peters, until recently the principal of the school, has faced criticism for her handling of the situation. She has resigned, indicating her hope that her departure might put a stop to distracting controversy over her role, and ease the transition to a more financially healthy institution.
    An interim board has been convened, with the aim of seeking additional funding, and the local Catholic parishes have said they remain vigilant in their efforts to keep this institution’s doors open.
    Mr. Hanson, however, still felt compelled to end his report with the admission that the school’s future “remains clouded.”
    Jean Cowen, a former public school teacher whose son has attended Stella Maris for five years, said this week that the discussion has focused too much on alleged mismanagement and financial impropriety and not enough on the simple question of enrollment.
    “Many parents like myself are trying very hard to keep the school open,” Ms. Cowen said. “It truly is a special place. If we could get the diocese to give us one more year, we know now what the problems are and believe we could fix them. Our big push is to just get as many people as possible to enroll. That’s our message.”
    Criticism of Ms. Peters’s tenure is inappropriate, Ms. Cowen said, as the former principal could not have done anything to prevent the massive exodus of students this fall.
    Having filled in for a Stella Maris teacher on maternity leave, Ms. Cowen said, she has seen the school from both a parent’s and an educator’s point of view. Her praise was effusive.
    “I don’t think many of us would be fighting this hard if we didn’t think this was a special place. It’s the oldest Catholic school on Long Island, has been in Sag Harbor for over 100 years.” Stella Maris, under the name Saint Andrew’s Parish School, was founded in 1877; it merged with Most Holy Trinity School in 1992.