St. Mary’s School unfortunately closed it’s doors last June. I covered the town hall meeting. Many things were discovered and discussed that night. Bishop David O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton, did not give our school a chance. Much of the public never heard the true reasons behind the school closing. I hope that this blog posting will shed some light on it.
The school building is now being used for Religious Education classes on Sundays. My daughter is in the second grade and is preparing for her First Holy Communion. Walking into the building for the first time since it’s closing made me very sad. I’m used to seeing it fully used as a school with the children’s artwork and progress being presented in the halls and the church’s weekly bulletin.
Our community has carried on, those that attended St. Mary’s have had to go to other Catholic schools or some are now in public schools.
My view is that St. Mary’s wasn’t given a fair chance to talk to Bishop O’Connell, and that this will be part of his legacy. Not giving others the chance to speak and for him to listen.
On March 8, 2013, the Diocese of Trenton suddenly announced that the St. Mary School would be closing in June due to declining enrollments, despite Bishop David O’Connell’s promise that no school would be closed this year, or at least until completion of a comprehensive Diocese-wide school sustainability study in May.
Bishop O’Connell has also stated that, if any school is to be closed “…it will be done with the awareness of all involved, parents, teachers, etc.” (O’Connell’s monthly webcast, “The Shepherd’s Voice” – 03FEB2013)
SAVE SAINT MARY SCHOOL (“SSMS”) is a grassroots coalition of school parents and alumni that has volunteered to conduct its own investigation of the school closing announcement, and to develop a strategic plan that will return the school to solvency and position it for a sustainable future.
On Tuesday, March 12 in front of a public audience, representatives of Bishop O’Connell and the Diocese of Trenton Office of Education agreed to grant SSMS an audience with the Bishop to present these findings and recommendations in the second week of April. Two days later the request by SSMS for a date and time for this meeting was denied, and a second written request was denied earlier this week. On Thursday, March 21 a letter was sent home with all students stating that the Bishop’s decision was final and that the school will close.
We are sincerely shocked and disappointed by the lack of due process, communication, tolerance and respect for our sincere efforts to preserve a school that has been serving this community for almost 125 years.
Additionally, our fact-finding has revealed a disturbing pattern of manipulation and mismanagement that has clearly contributed to the school’s financial condition.
Janine Pettit of Hamilton, NJ, started the meeting by praying the Rosary.
Signing petitions that ask for an audience with Bishop David O’Connell to present a plan to save the school.
Center: Ed Koenig of Florence, NJ and a long time parishioner and alumni of St. Mary’s School, signs a petition,that ask for an audience with Bishop David O’Connell to present a plan to save the school.
David Burden of Columbus, NJ was in charge of the meeting. He has children at St. Mary’s and presented everyone the information of what was found, and what can be done about it.
Jen Vare, from Levittown, PA, who is a Kindergarten teacher at St. Mary’s, voices her concerns during the meeting.
Janine Pettit of Hamilton, NJ, asks a question and voices her concerns.
Retired teacher, Cecelia Masella of Columbus, NJ asks questions and voices her concerns.
Patty Baylog of Bordentown, NJ offers some ideas to help get the message across to Bishop Connell.
Here is the video presentation from the Town Hall Meeting held on Tuesday, March 26th. This is what they found out about the school closing and how it could have been saved.
Many from the local news media came to cover the event. NBC News Philadelphia, The Trenton Times, Philly.com and my paper, The Register News.
June 1, 2013To the members of Saint Mary Parish and School,
It is with sincere disappointment and regret that the Save Saint Mary School Committee is announcing the end of our campaign. After much hard work and prayerful consideration, we
have concluded that it is impossible for the school to remain open. Our disappointment stems from the harsh reality that this school closure could have been entirely prevented, and by how
callously this parish and school community has been treated by our supposed leaders. If you have concern for the future of Saint Mary parish and/or Catholic education, particularly within the
Diocese of Trenton, we strongly encourage you to read this letter in its entirety and consider taking action in whatever manner you see fit.
On March 10, in a newspaper article, Bishop David O’Connell cited low enrollment and fundraising as the reasons for the closure of Saint Mary School, going further to state that the school was no longer sustainable. It should be noted that, to our knowledge, Bishop O’Connell has never once set foot in the school. So like a physician simply reading the patient charts and making a prognosis, he deemed that our condition was terminal and that we would be taken off life support at the end of the year. But the truth is that Bishop O’Connell and his subordinates had
only succeeded in diagnosing the symptoms, yet to this day have still not addressed the disease.
Our disease, our cancer, is the incompetence, negligence and intolerance that permeate throughout the parish business offices and up to the Diocese. Over the past two decades the finances of the parish and school have been driven into veritable ruin. While a knowledgeable, humble and dedicated spiritual leader, Father Mike Burns possesses absolutely no financial training nor expertise, nor has he exhibited the organizational and management skills required to run a parish, school and cemetery that combined represent over a one million dollar non-profit
institution. There have been virtually no financial controls, accounting processes nor best practices, investment/endowment plans, nor transparency measures in place during his tenure.
According to a 2009 diocesan audit of the parish, the parish financial committee did not meet once during the entire year because there was no parish financial committee. It was Father Mike’s responsibility to ensure that this committee existed to provide both financial counsel and oversight. Additionally, Father Mike’s chosen and trusted business administrator, Deacon DavidHarris, lacks any credible financial training and has exhibited contemptible behavior throughout his employment. We have uncovered evidence of extreme incompetence, negligence and
potentially even malfeasance on his part. This includes instances of tax fraud, discrepancies in parish collection totals, overbilling for office hours and personal sick time and vacation time,
sleeping during paid office hours, overcharging teachers for required benefits that were not issued, off-the-books cash transactions, missing maintenance receipts (as well as the supplies that were supposedly purchased), harassment of parish and Diocesan employees, and failed Diocesan audits, and more. For example, the 2012 audit of the parish cemetery included the following statement from the diocese :
“The parish cemetery, located within the confines of Bordentown
Cemetery…suffers the indignity of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ by the parish leadership…musical chairs seems to be the exercise in searching for cemetery information, with each person questioned indicating no knowledge and pointing to another who has no information and then continues the process until the inquirer simply gives up in frustration.
An appointment was made for Friday, 27 April 2012 to meet with the pastor, explain the issues and collect missing data. Without explanation, the pastor was not present nor available. A meeting took place with Deacon David Harris the parish business manager since 1997, who indicated simply that he has never been involved with the parochial cemetery, but did volunteer that he reconciles two accounts, neither of which were reported on the questionnaire. No local understanding exists for ascertaining right to burial on graves owned by earlier generations….records are of various types and in various locations, none of which have been coordinated.”
Because of the ineptitude of these two men and the fact such poor financial records have been kept, we can only speculate that millions of parishioner dollars have been misspent, or worse,
misappropriated over the past two decades. We have corroborated anecdotal evidence of several catastrophic financial mistakes, among them:
• The losses incurred during the new rectory construction as it ran massively over budget. Whereas the project budget was initially about one million dollars, we have learned from multiple sources that the final costs were “in the several millions”. Because of this, the parish reserves were almost completely evaporated, and it has been speculated that a major endowment intended for the school was used to complete the project, under the auspices that the rectory would be used for school purposes, which it hasn’t to this day.These building and maintenance cost discrepancies extend to evidence of off-the-books deals with maintenance staff and local contractors and suppliers (that were never issued
proper federal tax forms, as cited in a 2009 Diocesan audit).
• Over the course of the 2009-2010 school year, principal Michael Rosenberg was both hired and fired (technically his contract was not renewed) with a complete lack of due process and oversight. This matter was handled so poorly by Father Mike and created
such a rift in the school community that it resulted in the losses of over 40 students in one year, and Mr. Rosenberg was still granted an additional two month’s pay after his work concluded. While the salary (with benefits) for this period was less than $10,000, the
one-year cost for the loss of the student tuition revenue was at least $150,000. But the long-term cost of the loss of those students is the death of the school. No private school
can rebound from the loss of 25% of its population without proper and significant time, planning and leadership.
• The closure of the school will likely cost the Parish more than $300,000 in teacher benefits and severance pay over the next year. From the parish perspective, it will likely cost the same to close the school as it would to keep it open under our plan. We also learned indirectly that the St. Mary School teachers were promised an extra two weeks of severance pay if they signed their papers within an accelerated timeframe, and agreed in
writing to not say anything publicly against the Diocese. It should be noted that the parish, not the Diocese, will also pay this extra severance.
We are sure many of you are wondering why the Parish Council or School Board did not do more to stop these things from happening. Under Diocesan mandate, both groups have been advisory only, and the parish priest has had the prerogative to make all final decisions. For members of either group that are now reading this letter, only you know in your hearts if you did absolutely everything you could to prevent what has transpired. But the fact of the matter is that a school with a 125-year legacy is closing under your watch, and that is your cross to bear. We do know that there were several well-meaning individuals – including both school and rectory employees – that did confront Father Mike on these issues and were all ultimately denied. One School Board member subsequently resigned his seat, Father Mike removed another School Board member from her seat, and at least one rectory employee resigned due the incompetence (and harassment) she endured under Deacon Harris. It must be noted that all three of these people were among the most experienced and educated financial professionals available to serve Saint Mary.
Unfortunately for them, the inmates were running the asylum.
It must be noted that Father Mike may be the leader of our church, but we did not choose him, nor do we have the responsibility (or authority) to manage him, educate him, remove him or replace him. Therefore, we hold the Diocese of Trenton Superintendent of Schools JoAnn Tier, the Vicarof Catholic Education Father Douglass Freer and Bishop David O’Connell ultimately responsible for this situation. They were fully aware of the financial status of the school based on required
audits every three years (the two most recent were in 2009 and 2012), and the massive student exodus in 2010, as they had to approve both the non-renewal of Michael Rosenberg’s contract
and the hiring of Dr. Frank McAneny as the new principal. They were aware of the precipitous drop in enrollment, and how catastrophic it would be to our school and parish financially.
Regarding Father Mike Burns’ total incompetence as an administrator, if the Diocese was unaware they were simply ignorant, if they were aware they are negligent (or worse, have an
agenda to let him fail). Either way, they are guilty for allowing the man they appointed and supposedly managed (and we therefore trusted) to run our school into the ground.
They saw the cancer and were aware of the risk, yet did nothing to treat it or remove it. On May 16th two members of our committee attended the presentation of the School Sustainability Study results and recommendations that was commissioned by the Diocese over one year ago. Bishop O’Connell tapped Dr. John Convey, the consultant and a professor at The Catholic University of America, to lead the study. At this meeting, Mr. Convey stated he was fully aware of the situation at St. Mary School, and did agree with Father Mike’s recommendation that the school
should be closed. This is the same man – a paid consultant of the Diocese and our parish – that stated, “We’re not in the business of closing Catholic schools. We are in the business of
sustaining Catholic schools. Catholic schools are still the future of the Church.” He also stated that bad leadership and poor financial stewardship are leading indicators for schools at risk, but
that these are people problems that “can be fixed.” Yet we have not seen a single piece of evidence that demonstrates either Dr. Convey or the Diocese did anything to address our
problems. Instead, they took the word of Father Mike at face value, instead of performing an actual investigation and realizing that the school was not the problem, he was the problem.
So they allowed the cancer to simply spread and kill a vital organ. And with the costs required to now close the school, combined with the number of families that will be leaving the parish, and
with none of the aforementioned financial controls in place, the cancer will spread and the parish will surely die next.
Our committee was not formed to assign blame. Our committee was formed to develop an alternative plan to rescue and run the school sustainably for the next several years. We did so, and
experts we consulted verified that the plan is feasible, but also requires the sincere interest and will of our parish priest and our diocese to succeed. We have encountered neither throughout this
entire process. And adding to our disappointment, the fact-finding required to develop our plan uncovered the terrible information we have shared above, and even more. Yet the Diocese
remained disinterested in this information, and less interested in our plan. Along the way, we have been treated with nothing but contempt.
The first notification to school families that the school was closing (again, there was never any formal notice that the school was classified “at-risk”) was in letters postmarked on March 9; it
should be noted that many of these letters were not received in homes until March 12, two days after news of the closure appeared in two local newspapers. We asked the Diocese how and why this had happened and they did not take any responsibility, blaming Father Mike and school
administration for not sending notice sooner (again, incompetence…or negligence?). At a March 12 public meeting we requested a meeting with the Diocese to present our findings and plan, ameeting Father Freer agreed to for the second week in April (which we have documented on audiotape). Two days later the Diocese then made another statement to the media that there had been no such agreement and there would be no such meeting. In short, they lied. Bishop O’Connell simply stated that he was not aware of any meeting request. So two more written
requests were made, and both were denied. Regarding the aforementioned School Sustainability Study presentation, the Saint Mary School community was not formally invited to this meeting
until May 15, one day before the meeting. We asked the Diocese how and why this had happened and again they would not take any responsibility, blaming Father Mike and school administration
again for not sending notice sooner, despite the fact that the notice was on Diocesan letterhead. The Diocese has connived, passed blamed and lied throughout this entire process. The school
community has been treated perfunctorily, and this committee – who has had no other interest than doing everything possible within reason to save the school – has been treated as an
annoyance. This has only compounded our disappointment, to the point of disgust.
Many of us continue to wonder “why”. Why would the Diocese let the school die? And why would they treat us so callously? Let’s just pretend that they were distracted and unaware of our
plight for the past decade while dealing with “other things”. Suddenly they notice our school –the oldest in the Diocese, in a charming, middle class town, that produces remarkable students –
is now at risk. Why not use all of the church’s wealth to move heaven and earth and save the school? Send in a special administrator to clean up the offices and balance the books. To
demonstrate how important Catholic education is to the future of the church.
First, consider that schools like St. Mary don’t make money like St. Ann in Lawrenceville, St. Gregory the Great in Hamilton and Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, nor do they truly
serve the poor like Trenton Catholic Academy in Trenton or The Catholic Partnership Schools in the Diocese of Camden. These are two things – making money and then using it to serve the poor
– that are very important to leaders of the Catholic Church today. School (and parish) closures and consolidations help organize this, redirecting people (and money) where they belong according to socioeconomics.
Furthermore, one only need to look closer at the Diocese of Camden (and elsewhere) to realize that while the Catholic Church may be wealthy, the individual dioceses are not, and Catholic
elementary and high schools (which tend to cost money, not make money) are therefore no longer a strategic priority. Rather than buck the trends and the economy to rebuild the schools, the
Diocese of Camden has found a better thing to invest in: real estate. So they conducted a school sustainability study, closed some schools, consolidated others, and then closed more schools,
including those regional schools that had been consolidated. And they are now leasing Diocesan land for profit, most notably to build Section 8 housing. The construction costs are covered by
Federal grants, and the Diocese pays no tax as a religious organization. Feel free to look up The Diocesan Housing Services Corporation of the Diocese of Camden, Inc. to learn more.
However, along the way, the former Bishop (Galante) made the mistake of allowing groups like us to develop plans and set goals, assuming that they were a failing business that could not
possibly be saved. To his great dismay, a few of them, including Assumption School in Atco and Saint Mary Magdalene in Millville actually hit their enrollment and fundraising goals. So he
closed them anyway. Another school had enough notice to buck the Diocese entirely: Notre Dame Elementary school in Landisville-Newfield became the independent Edgarton Christian
Academy, and just survived its first year to the joy of its community and the discontent of the Bishop who said “it would never work”. The good people of ECA have proven again, where
there is a will, there is always a way.
And so The Diocese of Trenton has been keenly observing what has transpired in Camden, while writing their own playbook: 1) Conduct a perfunctory sustainability study; 2) Go ahead and close
and consolidate the schools, but do not provide enough notice to the community to actually allow them to respond and develop an alternate plan; 3) If they try anyway, deny them and marginalize
them at every turn, or else they might actually succeed, and; 4) Deal with the short term slings and arrows in the media, knowing full well the pain will dissipate once families have finally
given up and become compelled to commit to new schools. If all goes well, this will all transpire in less than three months.
So there is where we stand. St. Mary School is closing because we have a parish priest who can’t balance a checkbook, and a Diocese that is forsaking the long-term value of Catholic education
for better annual returns. As a committee, and a community, we invested too much time and hope in our supposed leaders to actually have the will to save the school, while we should have been thinking about how to move it out from under them entirely. That is our failure. We could not achieve what we set out to do – to keep Saint Mary School open for our children, and for our
children’s children. Saint Mary School (and Parish) is a gift that was bestowed upon us by our parents, and our parent’s parents, and under our watch its legacy will now end.
The good news is that we have learned that our work, along with work performed by other groups just like us, is already in use assisting schools that fear that they may be at risk in the coming
year. And they will need it. The School Sustainability Study indicates that there are at least eleven (11) within the Diocese of Trenton.
The Save Saint Mary School Committee
Jackie Aladich Bryan Bowers
David Burden Rose Mary Burden
Randy Carpenter Mark Laccetti
Andrew Miles Cathi Schaber