AKRON A pillar in the Firestone Park Community for 90 years will close at the end of the school year.
The announcement to close St. Paul Catholic School on Brown Street isn’t sitting well with some in community, who plan to put up a fight. Several community meetings have been organized by parents, teachers and church parishioners to voice their opposition to the closure, which they believe was done behind closed doors with zero community input.
The announcement, which was made Feb. 20 to teachers, came as a surprise especially after several new teachers last fall said they asked St. Paul Pastor Father Matthew Pfeiffer if the school was in danger of closing and they were told no. Several teachers say they asked Pfeiffer in early February if the school was closing, who responded that he said he would do everything he could to keep the school open.
Parishioners found out about the closure during the weekend masses Feb. 24 and Feb. 25. Pfeiffer called the decision one of his toughest in his four years at St. Paul’s Church.
"While some may have guessed at this outcome, the blow still hits hard," Pfeiffer said.
He said the significant decline in enrollment is the driving force behind the closure. He also encouraged people to call and set up a time to meet with him one-on-one to answer questions and pray.
During the following weekend masses March 3 and 4, Pfeiffer admitted more could have been done.
"This past week I have realized that perhaps I could have done more to better communicate the major factors leading to the decision," Pfeiffer said. "I apologize for this and I will work to be more sensitive going forward."
A letter was also sent to homes of parishioners and information was printed in the church bulletin outlining the reason for the closure.
The letter states in grades K-8 there are 126 students, 48 of those are parishioners. It costs the school $7,150 to educate each student. Parishioner tuition is $3,450 and $4,600 for non-parishioners. The church offertory pays for the rest of the cost.
Pfeiffer also said in the letter that nearly one third of all revenue that comes into the parish goes to support the school. He said this puts the parish in financial danger.
Pfeiffer said in making the decision he did consult with the Parish Council and Finance Council along with the diocesan education office.
Following the announcement, the Diocese of Cleveland released a statement.
"Due to several years of declining enrollment and increasing operating costs, Saint Paul Parish School in Akron will be closing at the end of the current academic year. The decision to close came after a thorough review of demographic and financial trends effecting the school and proper consultation with the parish and finance councils, and the Office of Education at the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. While there is a true sense of sadness at the closing of St. Paul School, a fixture in the Brown Street neighborhood with a long history and tradition, the change was necessary to ensure the financial stability of St. Paul Parish."
Deacon Jim Armstrong, APR Executive Director and Communications for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, said arrangements are being made to assist families with the placement of their children in other nearby schools. He also said the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland Office of Education will be working with school administrators, teachers and staff to help them in finding new employment.
Neighboring school district Coventry Local Schools has two students that attend St. Paul School. Coventry Superintendent Lisa Blough said the district will be reaching out to those two students to try and bring them back to Coventry.
Neighboring Catholic school St. Francis de Sales School in Coventry Township has 270 students enrolled and St. Augustine School in Barberton has 210 students.
Armstrong also said there are guidelines for keeping schools open.
"The metrics for the school were all trending downward and the financial burden on the parish was increasing to the point where continuing was not sustainable," Armstrong said. "When all these factors were considered, the Diocesan Education Office supported the request from the pastor to close the school."
When asked about there being no community input in regards to the closure, he said the same as Pfeiffer that consulting with the Parish Council and Finance Council along with the Diocesan Education Office took place.
Armstrong said during the past three years, overall enrollment has declined 26 percent from 170 students in 2015-16 to 126 students this year.
Community speaks out
Two community meetings have taken place with large crowds turning out for both.
Steve Schillinger, a member of the church, said him and several others have asked to meet with Pfeiffer as a group, but he has declined. Schillinger said he encourages everyone to make an appointment with Pfeiffer and to flood him with emails and phone calls with concerns about the school closing.
"This is not about a witch hunt or blaming one person," Schillinger said.
Bernie Factor, who is also highly involved with the church and has a granddaughter who goes to St. Paul’s School, said he doesn’t think one-on-one meetings with Pfeiffer are productive and a town hall meeting would have been better. He also referenced Pfeiffer’s recently homily about calling a family meeting when there is an important decision upcoming.
"He never called a family meeting here," Factor said. "He needs to meet with the people in the parish."
Factor hand delivered several letters to the Diocese in Cleveland along with 723 signatures urging the Diocese to keep the school open.
"No one felt to go to us was important," Factor said.
Akron Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer said his mom went to St Paul’s, his two sisters and his two daughters did.
"I hold that school and church very close to me," Kammer said.
Kammer also sent a letter to several people and has talked with Pfeiffer on the phone about the closure. He offered to host a community meeting about the closure, but Pfeiffer declined.
"The closure would devastate this community," Kammer said.
He is also concerned about the future of Firestone Park Elementary School because Akron Public Schools does not plan to build any more new schools following building the new Kenmore Garfield High School.
Kammer also said Bill Considine, president of Akron Children’s Hospital, pledges his support for the school.
Factor also raised concerns about no elections being held for years for Parish Council.
Schillinger said he never remembers hearing problems about the school financially and said many people don’t know who serves on the Parish Council and Finance Council.
"We don’t know who these people are," Schillinger said. "That is a sad thing."
There is no listing of who serves on either listed on the church’s website or in the bulletin.
Schillinger said making critical decisions like this is a problem. He agrees that demographics have changed, but stressed the importance of Catholic Schools. He also said the Cleveland Diocese has only heard one side of the story, which is from the church.
The community is urging for the pause button to be pressed on the closure and for there to be a community discussion about marketing the school and trying to get students back.
"We haven’t done anything or tried anything different," Schillinger said.
Some teachers say they believe they were deceived and lied to about the closure.
Ruth Dietzel, a teacher at the school, said there have been rumors in the past, but she had no idea the closure was coming.
Education aid Maureen Lott said the parish has always stepped up and given to the church in a time of need. She said the parish stepped up to help with funding for the new gym, the new church and a recent project by Pfeiffer for renovating the Stations of the Cross and adding several new statues in the church.
Schillinger said there isn’t much time to act. A proposal letter has been drafted and everyone is encouraged to send it to Pfeiffer along with those in Cleveland, including the Bishop, Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, Fr. Schlagel, and Christopher Knight.
The letter outlines a call to action plan which encourages parishioners to withhold all financial offerings to the parish until several things happen.
Those things are, the names of all Parish Finance Council members are made public; the pastor agrees in accord with Diocesan guidelines to the election of a minimum of two thirds of all Parish Council members to replace the current Parish Pastoral Council; the parish makes available the minutes of all Parish Pastoral and Finance Council minutes from the last three calendar years (2015- 2017); and finally the decision to close St. Paul School is withdrawn and a newly elected Parish Council determines, in collaboration with the pastor and the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Cleveland, a process for assessing the viability of the school.
"This closure is going to drive a lot of people away," Schillinger said.
More information and to print the proposal letter can be found at http://savesaintpaul.com.