AKRON Several community members and teachers who have been pushing for a community meeting to discuss the closure of St. Paul School on Brown Street in Akron with St. Paul Pastor Father Matthew Pfeiffer, finally got their wish.
Several teachers, community members and Akron Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer recently met with Pfeiffer and Christopher Knight, superintendent for the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. The community has been pushing for a group meeting as prior to the meeting. Pfeiffer said he would only meet with people one-on-one. He recently announced he would be open to meeting with small groups.
Knight said the Cleveland Diocese is lucky to have the fifth largest enrollment of Catholic students in the country. He said the model the Diocese has been using recently to attract students will not be suitable in the future.
One of the first questions Pfeiffer was asked was in regard to planning the closure of the school. He said the closure has been a concern since he first arrived at the parish four years ago. He said during his first weekend there he had someone come up to him asking if he was going to close the school.
Pfeiffer said the idea was floated after last school year, but a decision wasn’t finalized.
"It wasn’t as if I said in August hey we are closing the school and then I waited until February to say something," Pfeiffer said.
Teachers asked Pfeiffer why he told them as early as several weeks before the closure announcement that the school was staying open. He said he was very careful with what he said in that he had grave concerns about the school’s future.
There are 128 students in the school in grades K through 8 and teachers stressed that the pre-k class has 15 students in it this year. Pfeiffer said the pre-k is a year to year thing and that when he came to the parish there wasn’t one.
Pfeiffer has said the closure is due to dropping enrollment and the financial burden it is placing on the parish. In addition to the dropping enrollment and financial burden, Pfeiffer said the number of baptisms and weddings is also dropping in the parish, which is a sign to him the school is not sustainable.
St. Paul Teacher Ruth Dietzel said there are a bunch of students the school could go after.
"The students we are servicing need the church more than anyone," Dietzel said.
She mentioned several students who said they enjoy going to mass each week.
Education aid Maureen Lott said she doesn’t think it is all about the numbers being the driving force behind the closure. She said the students have been asking teachers about the closure and the teachers don’t know how to answer them.
"We look stupid," Lott said.
Lott said the recent announcement to close the school has created a division in the parish and she said she has been attending another church because she doesn’t trust Pfeiffer.
Kammer said he has spoken with Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who said it would be in the best interest to keep the school open. Horrigan is expected to make a call to Cleveland Diocese Bishop Nelson Perez.
Kammer and others asked Pfeiffer to hit pause on the closure for a year or two while the community raises money to support the school and work to market the school better to bring in more students.
Knight questioned how long the stability would be.
Those in attendance said to give them a chance and stressed that the community is willing to rally behind the school. They said even if they fail, at least they tried.
Pfeiffer, at first, said no to reversing the decision because students are already enrolling in other schools.
"There is still an opportunity to do the right thing," Steve Schillinger, a member of the church said.
Concerns were also raised about the school having a $1.3 million endowment fund, which could be used to help the school.
"It started with you, it can stop with you," Lott said in regards to Pfeiffer closing the school.
Pfeiffer said he regrets if anyone is upset over the decision. He said he will consult with the bishop again about keeping the school open.
Knight said he was told the school tried to increase enrollment, but Pfeiffer said in his time at the parish nothing other than ads has been done.
Schillinger said under the current leadership the last four years, we didn't even try to grow the school.
Now the community will scramble and begin developing a plan to collect donations and raise money to help support the school and look for ways to grow enrollment. The group is concerned if the school closes what will become of the empty building. There have been some rumors of a possible charter school renting out the space, but nothing has been confirmed.
As far as the decision on if the school can remain open, it will be up to the Bishop.
The day following the meeting, Knight announced his resignation from the Diocese. In a release, he said he will explore other opportunities outside the Diocese. Frank O’Linn, associate superintendent for secondary schools in the Office of Catechetical Formation and Education for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, will assume the additional role of interim superintendent until a search committee can be formed and recommendations made for a replacement.
"I am grateful to Chris for his service to the Diocese and I offer my best wishes in his future endeavors," Perez said in a release in accepting the superintendent’s resignation.
A request seeking additional comment about the resignation was not returned by the Diocese.