Norwich – Emotional parents and teachers learned this morning that the Diocese of Norwich will close St. Joseph School at the end of this school year, confirming fears expressed by parents and parishioners that a proposal to save the school would not be accepted.
The diocese later made the announcement official, and said other diocesan schools in the Norwich area could accommodate most of St. Joseph's 113 students. Diocese school officials are working to try to place the 11 first graders at local schools.
"I expected this," said Ann Marie Jakubielski, who worked on the plan to try to save the school. "I had that feeling in my head, even though my heart wanted to believe otherwise."
Even before learning the decision at about noon, Jakubielski enrolled her two youngest children at Sacred Heart School in Taftville this morning and her two older students at St. Patrick Cathedral School, where their friends are expected to attend. But she doesn't yet know whether there are slots available in those schools for her children.
Diocese officials met for several hours on Friday to discuss the proposal submitted by parents and to make the final decision on whether the school will close. But officials said they would delay announcing the decision until this afternoon to allow letters mailed to parents on Saturday to reach them today.
Parents started gathering early this afternoon in the school parking lot, letters in hand and tears in their eyes, to discuss the closing. Several parents hadn't yet received their mail but learned from fellow parents and even some students about the closing.
The school has a back debt of about $275,000 owed to the diocese, and expects to incur another $210,000 to $220,000 deficit this year. After school officials informed parents in February of the potential closing, a group of parents and teachers worked to present a plan to keep the school open. The effort would have tried to boost enrollment, marketing and fundraising. School faculty offered to take wage freezes and increased insurance premiums as part of the plan.
But diocese officials said the plan would not have reduced the $500,000 debt and still fell $100,000 short of meeting annual operating expenses.
"It is saddening to close a school that has been so important to the community, the parish and the church since 1908," said Father Tomasz Sztuber, parish administrator at St. Joseph, who made the recommendation to the diocese. "I conducted a careful and realistic evaluation with the trustees of the church, the finance committee of the church, the parish council, school principal, faculty and parents in determining that the heavy debt and the continuing forward costs of operating the school could not be met.
"We are grateful for the show of faith and support on the part of parents, faculty and parishioners who contributed a very thoughtful proposal to help. It is simply not fiscally responsible to continue to accrue debt we cannot hope to cover," Sztuber said.
Principal Sister Mary Mark said Monday was a very difficult day. Mark served as St. Joseph principal from 1993 through 1999, and returned this school year with a plan to finish her administrative career at St. Joseph. Mark said she signed the 20 letters to school staff Monday informing them of the closure.
"We have a wonderful school family," Mark said as school buses departed this afternoon. "The children are handling it well. They are more resilient than the adults."
Mark and Jakubielski both said the focus for the remainder of the school year will be on the children. The school will hold weekly activities to celebrate its history and mark its final spring semester.
Graduation for eighth graders is scheduled for June 11, and the final day of school will be June 18, barring additional snow days.
"Our big focus is going to be to try to make this as positive an experience as possible and to make this the best end of the school year as possible," said Jakubielski, a member of the Home School Association, the school's parent-teacher group.