ELKTON — A meeting at Elkton’s Immaculate Conception Catholic school (ICS) on Wednesday night about their dire financial situation revealed that closure of the private elementary school is likely in June 2020.
Parents and faculty were present for the meeting, which one parent said made him feel “blindsided.” According to reports of people who were present at the meeting, exchanges were extremely passionate and got heated at times.
“The fact that people were passionate is not seen as a negative, it’s a sign of commitment,” Diocese of Wilmington schools superintendent Louis De Angelo told the Whig on Thursday. “If you love something that much, of course you’re going to stand up for it.”
The superintendent fielded questions at the nearly three hour meeting on Wednesday night, and acknowledged that parents feeling hit with the news “was a point of contention.”
De Angelo maintains that school, parish, and diocesan officials let parents know as soon as they could.
“Part of being in the leadership role is that people trusted us,” he told the Whig.
“We did our best to maintain the school. We had parental support, diocesan support, parish support and [school] board support. I think we’ve done the best we could to financially maintain with declining enrollment. While we would want the school to stay open, which has always been our desire, it seems highly unlikely given the deficit projected for the next five years.”
Some parents aren’t so quick to accept the news, and a capital campaign is potentially in the works, said a source who was at the meeting last night.
School board chair Marcella Murray-Lockwood said parents were surprised.
“[De Angelo] saw the passion last night,” she told the Whig on Thursday evening.
“[Concerned parents and alumni] are trying to launch something. The families were given a little bit of time to try to come up with a plan.” She went on to say that interested alumni and supporters should reach out.
“Our tests scores are at the top of the diocese,” she said, praising the school. “And our students perform well in high schools after they get their academic preparation at Immaculate Conception. It’s been like that for a lot of years. That is due to the solid foundation of our education, our service to the community and what they receive at Immaculate Conception.”
Murray-Lockwood said the education and atmosphere at the school was close-knit and like none other.
“We have a unique situation there,” she said. Of the news of likely closing, she said it felt like “your family was just suddenly torn apart, truly. I think that is most hurtful. Parents are just hurt, as they feel they have a right to be. They also have the right to speak out. They’re frustrated.”
De Angelo also released a statement that said a “state-of-the-school” presentation was offered at the Nov. 13 meeting. The school presented a “very strong and vibrant message” in areas of faith formation, academics and development, the statement said.
But declining enrollment and escalating finances led to the recommendation to the pastor by the pastoral council and finance council that ICS not continue to operate after June 30 of next year.
In FY2016, 181 students were enrolled in the elementary school. Today, there are 113 students enrolled.
School officials said that the school board has “worked to address the financial situation,” but that the school would face a yearly deficit of $285,000 for the next five years due to an “uncertain enrollment” of approximately 115 students annually.
“The diocese, school board and the parish have worked together to do all that they can to keep the school open,” De Angelo told the Whig.
De Angelo explained that schools open the following year’s registration in November so that they can properly prepare budgets for the following fiscal year, and he acknowledged that the news was upsetting.
“We certainly have more information than the parents did, and I think that was a point of contention,” he said.
“I think what people need to do is keep the kids front and center so that our conversations and our attitudes reflect that, even though we may be upset. There’s a good, bright, faith-filled future for them and this is the next step in learning process.”
At the meeting, De Angelo outlined support options for families who wish for their children to continue their education in a Catholic school:
- A one-time (2020-2021 school year) Continuing Catholic Education Grant of $1,000 per student will be offered by any school willing to receive students.
- An evening will be offered at which interested receiving schools will be invited to ICS to meet families.
- A universal shadow day will be provided at which students may shadow at the schools of their choice.
For teachers and staff, school officials said the following supports will be put in place:
- A meeting with the diocesan HR Director will be arranged to assist with questions/concerns and resume writing/interview practices.
- Qualified educators and staff members wishing to continue to serve in the Diocese of Wilmington will have their information shared with other schools on a priority list.
- Ongoing meetings with faculty and staff will be available with Carol Ripken, associate superintendent, and De Angelo.
Students will likely choose between area Catholic schools like Christ the Teacher and Mount Aviat Academy, both of which De Angelo said are “good, blue ribbon” schools.
“We recognize that $1,000 per student isn’t going to cover transition costs,” he told the Whig.
“But it will get them new uniform and other things. It’s a help.”
De Angelo said he understands families have to make choices, and offered his help to anyone who reaches out.
Immaculate Conception has been in Cecil County since its opening in 1927 by the Ursuline Sisters. The Glen Riddle Franciscans took over in 1930. Peak population was in the 1960s, when more than 550 students were enrolled.