Catholic Free Press

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Rhode Island city’s bankruptcy affects its one Catholic school

Posted By September 8, 2011 | 3:54 pm | National
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By Brian J. Lowney Catholic News Service

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (CNS) — Central Fall’s ongoing fiscal crisis has impacted the city’s one Catholic school and the delivery of services.

State-appointed Receiver Robert G. Flanders Jr. announced in August that he had filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on behalf of Central Falls under the federal Bankruptcy Code.

“Everything was done to avoid this day,” Flanders said at a news conference.

“Services have been cut to the bone,” he continued. “Taxes have been raised to the maximum level allowable. We negotiated with Council 94 and the police and fire unions, without success, attempting to reach voluntary concessions, and we tried in vain to persuade our retirees to accept voluntary reductions in their benefits.”

Flanders, a former justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and past chairman of the state board of regents for elementary and secondary education, said that “from the ashes of bankruptcy, Central Falls will rise again: a slimmer, sleeker city to stand on its own two legs as an independent municipality or to merge, marry or consolidate services with one or more of its neighbors.”

Active employees and retirees were affected by changes in their health care plans, including a higher deductible, changes in co-payments and a 20 percent co-share of premiums.

According to Maria Rocheleau, principal of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Academy, the closure of the city’s Adams Memorial Library will affect the school’s book club, which relied on the facility to supply multiple copies of selected books and provided many other resources for students who used the facility for research and enrichment.

A popular community center that serves residents of all ages also has been shuttered.

Rocheleau attributed a slight drop in pre-kindergarten enrollment for the fall to a decreased need for day care. High unemployment has resulted in more parents staying home and caring for their children before and after school.

The school administrator said Central Falls’ financial climate has also created an increased need for financial aid. She noted that revenue from an endowment will be used for scholarships, and that Father Otoniel Gomez, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Community, has been very generous in providing assistance to parishioners who attend the school.

Father Gomez said that while summer attendance at Holy Spirit has dropped slightly because of summer vacations, weekly collections have increased.

“Right now we are seeing no effect,” Father Gomez said, adding that there hasn’t been an increase in the number of individuals seeking temporal assistance from the parish.

According to Central Falls School Superintendant Frances Gallo, the city’s economic crisis will reduce the school district’s budget by approximately $900,000.

While the Central Falls School District had been fully funded by the state since 1991, a new funding formula now calls for the cash-strapped city to provide some financial support to operate the city’s schools. The inability of the city to provide its share, combined with a decrease resulting from the new funding formula, will result in a $1.8 million cut in the school district’s budget for the new fiscal year.

She said services that the school district provides to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Academy will not be affected by the cuts because the programs are federally mandated and grant-funded.

Teri Cooney, a Central Falls resident and the wife of a retired city firefighter, is concerned that the changes in health care will impact her family’s financial situation.

“It’s going to make it harder,” the Holy Spirit Catholic Community parishioner said, adding that the family will continue to sacrifice to send her three grandchildren to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Academy, the only remaining Catholic school in Central Falls.

Cooney emphasized that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton instills solid Christian values and has a communitylike atmosphere not found in many other schools. She added that teachers are very supportive and strive to meet the individual needs of each child.

According to Brian Wallace, a spokesman for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., that city’s filing for federal bankruptcy protection in 1991 had no connection to the diocese’s decision to regionalize inner-city schools in Bridgeport at that time.

He attributed the closure of four of the city’s then 10 Catholic schools to “a standard flight to the suburbs” by young families and the inability of some immigrant families to afford the cost of a private school education for their children.

Wallace added that the six schools remain open, two decades after the reorganization.

“It was a terrible blow to the city,” he called, describing Bridgeport’s past economic troubles. “We survived it.”