School To Close At Year’s End

Enrollment down, debt up, accusations begin

    The Stella Maris School in Sag Harbor, the oldest Catholic school on Long Island, will close at the end of this year. Financial difficulties that grew more serious when over 30 students withdrew this past fall have proved too much for parents and teachers to overcome.
    The Rev. Michael J. Rieder, the executive pastor of the school board, wrote to parents, teachers, and staff members on Friday, informing them that “we have no choice but to close our school at the end of this academic year.” He discouraged “lashing out at brothers and sisters in need,” saying that divisiveness within the school’s community, including among frustrated parents, “does not fit the picture of who we are as Christians.” The school has been reported to be nearly $500,000 in debt.
    Calling the situation a “sad reality,” Mr. Rieder said plummeting enrollment was the chief cause of the financial troubles. Apparently five grades had three or fewer students registered for the coming year, something the pastor described as being less than a “healthy learning environment.”
    The news comes in the wake of anall-hands-on-deck effort by pastors and East End Catholics generally to forge ahead with an austerity plan to keep the school viable.
    William Murphy, the bishop of Rockville Centre, the diocese that administers Stella Maris, wrote Mr. Rieder Friday to express his regret at the school’s closure.
    “As you pointed out,” Mr. Murphy’s letter reads, “there are only forty-four students registered for kindergarten through grade eight, and nine students for nursery and prekindergarten. Unfortunately, there is no way that a school can operate academically or financially with so few students. Therefore, with great sadness I accept your recommendation.”
    Students from Stella Maris are likely to splinter off into local public schools, but a sizable number will end up at the other nearby Catholic school, Our Lady of the Hamptons in Southampton.
    Originally called the St. Andrew Parish School, Stella Maris was founded by the Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary in 1877.
    Jean Cowen, a parent and educator active in trying to keep Stella Maris afloat, said the press coverage of the school’s financial woes compounded the problem, causing an exodus of worried parents.
    “All this stuff about the finances came out, and there was a powerful group of disgruntled parents who decided that they were going to make some demands on the diocese, and if those demands weren’t met, they were all going to pull their kids. I think that some of the demands were not possible, and so they all went over and enrolled their kids at Our Lady of the Hamptons.”
    Ms. Cowen described a “mob mentality,” in which parents were concerned their children would miss out on a spot at Our Lady of the Hamptons and accelerated the pace of withdrawal from the ailing Sag Harbor Catholic school. Her own son, she said, would go to the Sag Harbor Elementary School.
    “It’s not that I was invested so much in a Catholic education. I was invested in that school, and those people. I’m heartbroken about it. Every time I walk in that building I have to fight back tears.”
    She said she harbors no regrets, though, about the “solid foundation” that Stella Maris provided her child.