VINELAND — Sacred Heart High School and the Diocese of Camden disagree on why the school will close at the end of the current academic year.
Officials with the diocese said Friday that the school failed to meet enrollment benchmarks set last year when the diocese allowed Sacred Heart to remain open for at least this academic year.
According to the diocese, Sacred Heart’s Board of Limited Jurisdiction set an enrollment of 220 students as a goal for a “sustainable high school.” The board was created last year as part of the school’s reorganization and serves as its governing body.
However, 52 of Sacred Heart’s 168 students will graduate in June, the diocese said, and the school reported that only 23 youths registered as freshmen for the 2013-14 academic year.
“The enrollment was just so low,” diocese spokesman Peter Feuerherd said. “The ability to run a high school with that low a number … has become an issue that caused the school to close.”
But Francis Reilly, president of the school’s Board of Limited Jurisdiction, said the only benchmarks set as part of the agreement with the diocese were financial. Those financial benchmarks were met, he said.
“We trust they gave us an honest explanation of their situation,” Reilly said. “We’re certainly disappointed.”
Whatever the reason, parents and students who gathered in Sacred Heart’s gymnasium Thursday night for an emotional meeting during which school officials broke the news of the institution’s closing vented their anger at the diocese. Parents leaving the meeting said they blamed the diocese for abandoning a school that people worked so hard to keep open.
Feuerherd said the closing decision was reached jointly by the diocese’s schools office, Bishop Dennis Sullivan, Sacred Heart officials and Monsignor John Burton, Sacred Heart’s rector and pastor of Christ the Good Shepherd Church.
Sacred Heart officials said they asked the diocese to subsidize $4,000 per student worth of the school’s annual tuition of nearly $8,000 for a period of four years.
Feuerherd said that was not going to happen, in part because the agreement that allowed Sacred Heart to remain open for the current academic year stipulated there would be no financial help from the diocese. The diocese is “just not able” to provide the subsidy requested by Sacred Heart officials, he said.
Feuerherd said he understands the anger directed at the diocese over Sacred Heart’s closing.
“Anger is anger,” Feuerherd said. “It is what people feel about a situation which is hard to grasp. Attachment to that school is very emotional.
“But people should look at the numbers,” he said. “They can discover for themselves that the numbers just don’t work out. The enrollment figures were not going to go up.”
According to the diocese, Sacred Heart students are welcome to attend the other Catholic high schools — including Camden Catholic, Gloucester Catholic, Holy Spirit, Paul VI, Saint Joseph and Wildwood Catholic — in the diocese. Sacred Heart students who enroll in those high schools will get a $1,500 tuition discount for the 2013-14 school year, the diocese said.
However, the past several years have been difficult not only for Sacred Heart but for some of the region’s other Catholic high schools operated by the diocese.
Wildwood Catholic in North Wildwood was saved from closing several years ago by a community fundraising effort and a new administration. Then-Bishop Joseph A. Galante sent out a letter in May to quash rumors that Absecon-based Holy Spirit was in financial trouble.
Wildwood Catholic, Holy Spirit and Saint Joseph in Hammonton all had to restructure operations because of little financial support from the diocese.
Catholic elementary schools in the diocese are also facing problems.
The diocese currently has 30 elementary schools, Feuerherd said. The diocese had “substantially more” elementary schools five years ago, he said. He did not have the exact number.
Sacred Heart officials told a shocked student body in January 2012 that the diocese planned to shutter the school at the end of that academic year.
However, the community and Sacred Heart alumni rallied to raise $17,000 more than the $300,000 they needed to collect by the May 1 deadline agreed to by the diocese to keep the school open. School officials also said Sacred Heart secured five-year financial commitments from other contributors totaling more than $1 million.
Sacred Heart opened for the current academic year with changes that included the Board of Limited Jurisdiction to help govern operations and a streamlined operation.
However, some parents who left Thursday’s meeting admitted they previously had doubts about Sacred Heart’s ability to remain open.
Sacred Heart’s closing affects more than just its students and parents.
Cheryl’s School Uniforms in Vineland has sold pants, shirts, skirts and other attire to Sacred Heart High School students for 37 years.
Co-owner Ed Rychlicki said each new school year was something of a reunion, reaching the point where he and his wife, Cheryl, started dressing the “children of the children” who attended Sacred Heart years ago. Those reunions will stop when Sacred Heart closes, he said.
“It’s like the passing of a member of a family,” Rychlicki said. “We won’t get to see those people anymore.”
Rychlicki said he and his wife were worried about Sacred Heart’s future and reduced their inventory of the school’s uniforms. He said they do not like losing the Sacred Heart business, but hope to make up the loss by stocking uniforms for new charter schools and public schools that have dress codes.
Still, Rychlicki said he and his wife feel bad for Sacred Heart’s students.
“They’re all great kids,” he said.
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