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Mar 20, 2018 4:51 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Parents Vow To Fight Catholic High School's Closure

McGann-Mercy High School is closing in June. AMANDA BERNOCCO
Mar 20, 2018 5:43 PM

While the rule of the Monarchs might be coming to an abrupt end this June, the revolt led by the parents of displaced students attending the East End’s only Catholic high school is only now beginning.

Officials representing McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, whose mascot is the Monarch, announced the pending closure earlier this month, a decision that the Diocese of Rockville Centre attributed to declining enrollment and overall financial hardship.

Brian Stark of Riverhead, who sits on an advisory board for Mercy, estimated that between 60 and 65 percent of the school’s 363 students hail from the five East End towns.

The abrupt decision to close the school at the end of the current school year left students with only two options: enter public school in September, or travel more than 50 miles each school day to one of the two nearest Catholic high schools­: St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip, or St. Anthony High School in Melville.

Neither option is acceptable, according to parents.

Lori Molinaro of Aquebogue and Donna Stumbo of Rocky Point, who both have children enrolled in the Riverhead private high school, said they are not going to let the closure of Mercy happen without a fight.

“Everything was a big shock,” Ms. Stumbo said of the announcement, which they said came with no warning.

In separate interviews, Ms. Stumbo and Ms. Molinaro noted that they found it odd that the school announced its closing just one day after a fundraiser was held for an athletic bus and shortly after various improvements, such as the updating of sports fields, were made to the campus.

“Never once did we get indication that the school was under financial difficulties …” said Ms. Molinaro, who has a freshman and junior now attending the Riverhead school. “If you knew your school was in financial deficit, you wouldn’t be having a fundraiser for a bus.”

Ms. Stumbo added that she feels that there is more to the story of the school closing than parents are hearing.

“I’m no investigator and I’m no lawyer—I’m just a parent,” said Ms. Stumbo, who has a ninth-grader now enrolled at Mercy. “But I have common sense. And common sense says to me that something is going on here.”

Sean Dolan, a public information officer for the diocese, said in an email on Tuesday that next year’s enrollment was expected to dip to 312 students.

“We recognize that there is never good timing for this type of announcement,” Mr. Dolan said. “The main factor driving the timing was the need to complete our financial and demographic analysis, have the time to thoroughly review and discuss options, and exhaust all alternatives.”

Ms. Stumbo and Ms. Molinaro noted that their children already made their schedules for the 2018-19 school year when they caught wind of the school’s impending closure.

But Mr. Dolan explained that the diocese wanted to see how many students registered as freshmen for the 2018-19 school year before making the final decision to shutter the high school. He noted that 91 of the school’s students are scheduled to graduate this year, and that only 55 freshman have committed to the school next year.

Still, parents of current students said they are upset that the school didn’t seek their help in raising enrollment or fundraising more money to keep the school operating. “We were kept in the dark, and it was so blatantly unfair,” Ms. Stumbo said.

The news of the high school’s abrupt close was also upsetting to former McGann-Mercy parents.

Jim Drew of Hampton Bays, who sent all 13 of his children to McGann-Mercy, said it was a “sad surprise” to hear the news about the fate of the high school.

The former Southampton Town Board member explained that he doesn’t think the diocese took into consideration the strain traveling at least 50 miles to attend either St. John’s or St. Anthony’s. “I think the options that the diocese offered are not really feasible,” Mr. Drew added.

The issue of transportation in particular is something that hits home for parents.

School districts are required to transport all students in grades kindergarten through 12, including those attending private and charter schools, but there are mileage limits, according to the State Department of Education. School districts do not have to provide transportation to students who live less than three miles from a school, or to students who want to attend religious or charter schools more than 15 miles from their home district.

To address this issue, the diocese is offering to have a bus pick students up from McGann-Mercy and take them to another Catholic school to the west. Therefore, in Ms. Stumbo’s situation, the diocese is asking her to drive her daughter, Ava, 20 minutes east to Riverhead, so the teenager could get on a bus to travel another 75 minutes to get to school, and then another 75 minutes to get home each day.

“Is that not the most stupid thing you ever heard in your life?” Ms. Stumbo said.

Nancy Giglio of Hampton Bays, who has grandchildren enrolled at McGann-Mercy, agreed. “This is absolutely bizarre.”

Her husband, Bob Giglio, a science teacher at Our Lady of the Hamptons—a Catholic school in Southampton that ends at eighth grade—said it’s going to be difficult to encourage students to continue their education at a Catholic institution. “I don’t know if everyone is going to want to commute up to [West] Islip,” Mr. Giglio said.

The teacher also shared concerns that if students choose to go to one of the two remaining schools, the long commute will most likely deter them from participating in extracurricular activities, including clubs and sports. “Unless they’re really, really committed, they’re not going to go,” Mr. Giglio said.

Two local pastors agreed that parents are going to have to make difficult decisions.

Father Ryan Creamer of Most Holy Trinity Church in East Hampton said he has been speaking with parishioners, noting that it is hard to say for sure if families will continue to send their children to a Catholic school up-island or enroll them in public school. He said it would probably make sense for current juniors to enroll in one of the western schools as they are only a year away from graduating. Younger students, he added, are more likely going to be inclined to pick a different path.

Overall, Father Creamer said the families are handling what he describes as an “unpleasant situation” quite well. “The response from people has been quite mature,” he said.

Father Thomas Murray of St. Therese of Lisieux Church in Montauk said only two children from his parish attend McGann-Mercy. While he didn’t know for sure, he speculated on Tuesday that they might opt to transition to public school because of the distance to the next closest option.

While Father Murray described the closure of the school as “sad,” he said he understood the financial and enrollment pressures during a phone interview that he did from his office—which once served as the library for the now-defunct Little Flower Catholic School. Rising costs and declining enrollment also played a role in its closure, he noted.

“All the parents asked me to do is to pray that they don’t close [McGann-Mercy],” Father Murray said.

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For anyone interested in showing support for Mercy High School and Catholic education on the East End, a group is marching in the Hampton Bays St. Patrick's Day Parade this Saturday March 24th. Meeting at the HB middle school at 10 am. Parade kicks off at 11. Thank You!!
By pd6144 (4), southampton on Mar 21, 18 8:53 AM
1 member liked this comment
I heard on the grapevine that Peconic Bay Medical Center has plans for this property.
By watchdog1 (543), Southampton on Mar 21, 18 10:11 AM
yes...I heard this too...money money money is always the way....keep up the fight, parents....
By native68 (20), southampton on Mar 21, 18 1:21 PM
From their website, “The Diocese of Rockville Centre is fortunate to be able to initiate Phase II of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (for Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse) by using funds from strong investment returns…..
By Deb B (8), Hampton Bays on Mar 21, 18 7:11 PM
Good luck.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Mar 21, 18 7:49 PM
I hope they succeed. We need more good schools, not less.
By Funbeer (273), Southampton on Mar 21, 18 8:41 PM
1 member liked this comment
St Anthony's charges the same tuition but has close to 2400 people. It's just economics. Either raise the tuition, raise endowment/parent support, raise enrollment.
By Hambone (514), New York on Mar 21, 18 10:20 PM
St Anthony's is run by the Franciscan Brothers, not the RC Diocese. That's why they're still in business....and going strong. No comparison there. The Diocese is still paying for molesting priests and Bishop Barres' Mercedes and mansion in Nassau County. Those things are far more important than just a few hundred teenagers education and future. Disgrace!
By DiseaseDiocese (668), Riverhead on Mar 21, 18 10:41 PM
2 members liked this comment
By PatrickKing (15), Sah Harbor on Mar 22, 18 5:24 PM
The disgrace is that the church protected those molesting priests for years and allowed them to do serious emaotion harm to those who were most vulnerable and entrusted in their care. The fact that they now have to make monetary payments to those children is now having an effect on the chuirch and it's teachings Seems like just punishment
By PatrickKing (15), Sah Harbor on Mar 22, 18 5:26 PM
1 member liked this comment
If parents are not enrolling their children in this school in numbers that would warrant it remaking in the education business then the management has no choice but to close it down.The era when Nuns and Brothers operated schoools is over,they worked for very little compensation and as a result they subsidized Catholic education.We have public schools on the East End that are very good..so my advice is get over it.
By watchdog1 (543), Southampton on Mar 22, 18 10:01 AM
Watchdog, It's not that people are saying that the East End public schools are not good. I think people choose to give their children a Catholic education because of their beliefs. I'm sure if there is not an agreement with the parents and the diocese most of the students will be attending public schools because the additional 45 minute commute is not feasible. I'm sure most parents, especially those who have students that are currently juniors would like their kids to finish at Mercy. Myself being ...more
By pd6144 (4), southampton on Mar 22, 18 3:37 PM
2 members liked this comment
A disaster! My grandchildren are both attending Mercy. This news was given by a very cold email with no prior hint. Many of their friends who came to Mercy from Our Lady of the Hampton's will not be able to make the 40 minute or so trip to St. John the Baptist . Some of these children have been classmates since Kindergarten and were devastated to hear this sad, sad news. Mercy educates children from many nearby towns and is the only Catholic High School in the general area. Parents have made sacrifices ...more
By mimiann (2), Hampton Bays on Mar 22, 18 5:32 PM
2 members liked this comment
Speak to your local pastor,he is the local Dean and should be able to give you some facts.
By watchdog1 (543), Southampton on Mar 22, 18 5:44 PM