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St. Pius X says school’s debt too big to overcome

After the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn told the parochial school and eight others in Queens last month that they would be shuttered because of declining enrollment and rising debt, the vicar for education gave the marked institutions one month to raise funds and stay open. Since that brief reprieve, parents at many of the schools have scrambled to meet the deadline, now two weeks away. But at St. Pius X, located at 147th Avenue and 249th Street, Monsignor Thomas Graham said the approach would not work for his school."Our hole is too deep to consider that," he said Monday. When St. Pius was first in danger of closing two years ago, the school tried several different fund-raisers to improve their finances. None of the attempts provided permanent relief, Graham said."None of those things worked," he said. "Our debt has risen amazingly."Once bursting at the seams in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, parochial schools across the city have suffered declining enrollment in recent decades, brought on by changes in the makeup of the populations they served and rising costs. As the number of nuns available for classroom duty fell, parochial schools turned to lay teachers, driving up expenses. To make up the difference, the schools raised tuition, further eroding enrollment and starting a downward spiral of smaller student bodies.In Rosedale, St. Pius X opened in 1965 with room for 750 students, and Irish, Italian and German Catholics filled the school with their children. But as they left for the suburbs and others came in, the base of support declined. The drastic shift in demographics was readily apparent by the time the 20th century drew to a close. In the 1990 census, out of a total population of 32,647 in Rosedale, 16,878 residents were black non-Hispanic and 10,657 were white non-Hispanic. In 2000, the total population increased to 39,044, with 30,158 black non-Hispanics and 2,832 white non-Hispanics.While some of the newcomers have sent their children to the school-a visit to St. Pius Monday revealed a largely black student population and a number of parents with Caribbean accents-Graham said the numbers just were not there anymore. Rosedale's population now includes Hindus, Muslims and non-Christian Catholics who are unlikely to attend the school, which is open to students of all faiths and backgrounds, he said. There has also been the question of cost, with tuition now at $3,800 after a steady rise over the years. The newcomers, Graham said, have big mortgages and cannot afford private schooling.Enrollment had also been steadily declining before falling steeply in the 1990s, leaving St. Pius, a pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school, with one class per grade instead of two. It currently has about 150 students, Graham said, in a facility built for 750."We need to have about 200 to make it viable," he said.For Principal John Toomey, who has run St. Pius for 15 years, the fate of the school was no surprise."A lot of it we could see coming with the enrollment," he said. "We have a lot of people that moved."He recognized that the diocese had to make the decision from a financial perspective but said he was disappointed for the students and faculty."The sad part is they are all so dedicated," he said of the teachers. The diocese will soon hold a job fair for displaced staff from the nine schools, but there are no guarantees of a new post.School administrators and diocese officials are also working together to find new homes for the students. Many are expected to go to St. Clare's, a mile away at 137th Avenue and Brookville Boulevard, where an open house was scheduled to be held Wednesday night.As they picked up their children from school Monday afternoon, parents said the closure, to take place at the end of the school year, was not unexpected. Still, they were not thrilled with the prospect of a longer drive to St. Clare's and making their children go through the switch.Valerie St. Fleur of Rosedale said she had sent several children through St. Pius and expected the same for her son, a kindergartner."I wanted that for him," she said.The school building itself will likely be leased to the city Department of Education, Graham said, adding that for some longtime residents left in his parish, the transition would mark the end of an era."Sadness, tears with some," he said of their reactions. "They loved the school and are very sad to see it closing."Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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