By LINDSAY CAREY
A town hall meeting for parents and parishioners from local Catholic churches was held at St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Plantsville on Thursday, Feb. 5. It offered an opportunity to discuss the merging of St. Dominic and St. Thomas schools at the St. Thomas campus for the 2015-2016 school year.
A collaborative presentation was given to parents, before the floor was opened up for questions about the merger.
Father Ronald May of St. Dominic’s Church began the presentation with an explanation for why the merger is needed. May shared that enrollment has been declining at both schools for some time now.
“A year ago, our school board was putting together a budget for St. Dominic’s. We had forecast about 146 students for this year and we came up with 20 short. Now 20 short is roughly equivalent to $100,000,” said May.
May made a direct correlation between the declines in enrollment with the declining number of Catholics.
“We have a culture that’s becoming more and more secular,” he said. “When the numbers decline and fewer people come to church, fewer people are open to or willing to even consider Catholic school.”
He also attributed declines in enrollment to the decline in kindergarten enrollment in both schools, especially after other schools began to offer full-day kindergarten.
Overall declining enrollment in kindergarten affects the future of the school because schools rely on those students to move on to the next grade and fill classes.
“When Southington Public schools went to full-day kindergarten, we lost more than half the children,” said May.
He shared that St. Dominic School has just 12 students in kindergarten this year, and St. Thomas School only has five.
As a result of a decline in enrollment, both schools have been struggling with their budget.
“This past year and this year we’ve had to pull in all our resources so we have nothing in reserve for the coming year,” said May.
He explained that the merger is necessary in order to ensure financial stability and viability of both schools. May shared that both pastors came together, because they felt like the schools would not survive on their own.
“So what do we do? Do we just let the schools die or do we take the initiative before it happens.” said May. “Unless we take the initiative, both schools will fail. That’s pretty evident.”
He also discussed the hope that this merger would draw in other parishes from across Southington and become the stepping stone to building a town-wide, regional Catholic school.
Father Nicholas Melo of St. Thomas Church shared his support of the merger as well at the town hall meeting.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for any one parish to maintain a school on its own in this economic climate and, to ensure the economic viability of Catholic education here in Southington, we felt that we needed to be proactive rather than reactive,” said Melo. “In the long term we felt like this was the direction we needed to go.”
Melo shared how the pastors went about making the decision. The pastors formed an exploratory committee, which included parish trustees and chairs of the finance councils from both churches. Together, they made the decision to go in this direction.
A timeline on the decision-making process was also shared at the meeting. The timeline revealed that a letter was sent to the Arch Bishop on behalf of the exploratory committee as early as October 2014.
It also revealed that the two school principals, Patricia Tiezzi of St. Dominic School and MaryPat Wirkus of St. Thomas school, were notified in November.
A “Steering Committee” was assembled in December to assist the pastors in making decisions. Last December, the Arch Bishop responded to pastors acknowledging and supporting their decision. Parents and teachers were notified of the merge in January.
Some parishioners and parents at the meeting said that they were still stunned by this decision. Many shared that they felt that the decision was made behind closed doors with communications to parents beginning very late in the process.
Other parents were more supportive of the decision to merge.
Gina Marcantonio-Wotton, St. Thomas School and Steering Committee member, spoke about why parents should enroll their child into this new school.
“The closing of St. Thomas and St. Dominic is very emotional for both sides, for many reasons, but it’s a sign of the times where many communities across the country have already successfully consolidated multiple schools into one school community,” said Marcantonio-Wotton. “It’s not going to be easy, but we have been given an amazing opportunity to have a say in what this school will look like.”
Marcantonio-Woton promised that the merge would bring the best of both schools into one, specifically, that the best technology from both schools would be installed.
The meeting also revealed that the school would be run by pastors of both parishes, a school board composed of members of both parishes, and that Tiezzi and Wirkus would serve as co-principals during the first year.
Faculty selection was another major concern for parents and teachers of both schools. Current teachers will have to submit a letter of intent stating that they would like to teach at the new school, and those teachers will be interviewed by both principals this month.
Teachers will be selected upon recommendation of the co-principals. However, the pastors will make the final selection.
Other than the physical space and faculty, there won’t be many other changes to the school’s structure. The curriculum will remain the same and the class sizes will be held to 25 students or less.
Any child currently enrolled in St. Dominic or St. Thomas gets a guaranteed a spot in the new school, and other students will be put on a waiting list
Transportation will continue to be provided by Southington Public Schools, and hot lunches will also continue be offered for those that wish to participate.
However, in order to comply with Southington Public Schools transportation schedules, St. Dominic’s school will be losing 15 minutes of their school day. This decision was debated by some parents, but the co-principals shared that this call was unavoidable.
The final tuition will be presented to parents at another meeting in March, and faculty selection is expected to be completed in March as well.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Lindsay Carey, email her at LCarey@SouthingtonObserver.com.