Before retiring Friday night I read in the news that Immaculata Academy of Hamburg, New York, was closing its doors come June. (The formal announcement letter is here, and it is quite candid.) Immaculata is something of a family school for us; my sisters and my nieces attended over the years. There is something of a “same old…same old” element to the story of another Catholic school closing, which frustrates me in the sense that these closings have been taking place nationally and in Buffalo at least since the 1960’s and we don’t seem to be learning what the warning signs are. Because I follow Buffalo news closely, I was interested to see the press and public reactions back home. As with other local school closings in Western New York, the absence of understanding about the cost of education and, frankly, an unhealthy sense of entitlement regarding Catholic education, are in play here, though I hardly think Buffalo is alone in this regard.
But each closing also has a unique twist, and Immaculata has its own story to tell. In this case the decision to close was made by the owner of the corporation and the land, the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph. FSSJ established the high school in the 1920’s in a portion of the Buffalo Diocese known as the South Towns. In the 1920’s this region was truly rural farm country; today it is a rather healthy spread of Buffalo suburbs known nationally as the home of the Buffalo Bills’ stadium and the line where the “lake effect blizzards” begin off Lake Erie. The IA closing surprised me as I have always regarded modern-day Hamburg and its environs as at least moderately “toney.”
I began to look at the standard benchmarks one commonly uses to assess a school’s health. The current enrollment according to media reports is 180 young women over a four-year high school curriculum with 45 full and part-time employees. 2010 public sources put enrollment at about 200. The school’s capacity is 250. The annual per student cost to educate is $16,000. The tuition rate is not officially publicly posted; a prospective parent application form must be made through the Diocese of Buffalo website. However, several independent sources put the 2014 tuition in the $9000 -$10,000 range/yearly from parent reports and business data sites. From multiple public sources I have learned that the ratio of students to faculty is 8-1. (New York State average is 13-1.) I checked IRS 990 reporting of the school’s financial reporting, but the document lists the school as “not required to file (church).”
One interesting point that has escaped local media attention (and more surprisingly, posters and bloggers) is that IA sits adjacent to Hilbert College, a small private four-year institution accredited by Middle States and apparently also owned corporately by the same religious community. The same five FSSJ names appear as board members of both schools.
The official letter of disengagement from Immaculata by the leadership of the FSSJ is a rather candid description of precisely why this decision was made. The school was meeting its weekly financial obligations, but it depended upon the FSSJ for its capital repairs and technical upgrading, to the tune of $7,000,000 over the past decade. The school’s board of directors undertook a capital campaign in 2013 to raise $1,000,000 for improvements and an endowment. On the campaign web page, the local IA board had pledged about one-third of the funding; a challenge grant was poised for another third. In short, the IA community of alumni and student families needed to raise about $300,000. As the FSSJ letter observed, this campaign yielded “disappointing results.” Friday's letter also notes “bleak demographics,” though not specified in the release.
The FSSJ community presently has one sister serving at the school, the president, who works with a lay principal. The entire number of sisters in the congregation today is 60, with a median age of 80. One can guess that the FSSJ community would wish to maintain presence in girls’ Catholic schools for the sake of vocations, or as a feeder for Hilbert, but in view of the congregation’s actual demographics, this is no longer possible. In looking at several on-line minutes of parents’ meetings in 2013 and 2015, though, there was no sense of urgency regarding financial matters or other issues of survival. From a fall 2015 meeting I find the treasurer’s report: “Our current balance is $10,650.39 including proceeds from the Meat Raffle, reported separately.” (sic) It would appear from scattered social website posts in recent times that at least some parents may have been concerned about declining enrollment.
Contrary to the belief of many social posters, the Diocese of Buffalo does not subsidize students or schools directly. The Diocesan umbrella includes an entity known as the BISON Children’s Scholarship Fund. Its records indicate scholarship assistance of about $1.8 million awarded annually to students of low income households who meet financial screening requirements. (Figures are confirmed by review of IRS 990 filing.) I could not determine if such funding applies to high school as well as elementary school students; I would venture to guess not. BISON was begun in 1995 and it represented a step in the right direction, but the fund is growing slowly and its nearly $2 million in grants are allocated across an eight-county region from Niagara Falls to the PA state line. Moreover, BISON solicits from the same population as the Diocese itself, which has recently announced a $100 million capital campaign assigning $12 million to tuition assistance—presumably an endowment.
From the public information available, it is hard to see how the school was going to survive financially, given that it does not have a good recent history of self-generating philanthropy, and has depended far too much upon funding from a religious community that itself is passing into its twilight phase. Had the school been a diocesan institution, I am confident it would have closed about a decade ago, as this is when the school community began to depend excessively on the generosity of the FSSJ for its capital improvements, to the reported tune of $7 million.
There are unanswered questions that remain to round out the story. The biggest one is the seeming lack of awareness about the school’s precarious financial footing. I do note Sister Ann Marie Hudzina’s pointed reference to the “disappointing” recent capital campaign. I do understand that no Catholic school wants to publicize its troubles while recruiting; all the same, the inability of the local school community—parishes, alumni, etc.—to meet what is by today’s standards very modest goals of capital fundraising should have set off warning bells. Perhaps it did, but there is NO trace of this on the internet that I can see. Thus, the shock, anguish and tears of Friday.
Tomorrow I will present a selection of public reaction from a variety of news media blogs, Facebook, and any site worth mining. In the light of today's post, you may laugh, cry, or throw your coffee mug across the room...which is why I drink from Styrofoam. One conclusion: in 50 years we have learned nothing.