News that the Diocese of Rockville Centre will close Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead at the end of the current school year broke late in the day on Monday. News of an impending announcement was delivered to the homes of students at the high school via robocalls, with the announcement itself coming in a video statement, delivered by Bishop John Barres, posted on the diocese’s website.
Included in the announcement was additional wrenching news for students and their parents: The diocese would also close Our Lady of Mercy Regional Elementary School in Cutchogue and merge it with St. Isidore School in Riverhead. The new, merged school would be renamed. Next fall, North Fork elementary students who want to continue their Catholic education will have to travel to Marcy Avenue in Riverhead — a considerable ride for a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old. High school students, if they don’t mind the distance, will be able to attend St. John the Baptist in West Islip, the nearest Catholic diocesan high school.
The announcement of the closures was greeted with shock and deep sadness by students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents. While they were aware that enrollment had dropped sharply at the schools — and some surely knew the diocese was funding a financial shortfall to the tune of millions of dollars — no one said they saw this coming. There was no announcement from the diocese of a five-year plan, or even a one-year plan. There was no formal warning that this year could be the last, so please be prepared. The video announcement went right to the point: The high school and Our Lady of Mercy will be shuttered in June. Done.
Some parents said they saw recent fundraisers at the schools as a sign that life would go on at the campuses. Others pointed to expensive additions to athletic fields at the high school as a hopeful sign. One fundraiser for the high school was held Sunday — one day before the closure announcement. In an interview, the parent of one high school student said she felt “sucker-punched” by the news. Who can blame her for feeling that way?
The diocese set up a website and email address for those who wanted more information. Efforts by this newspaper to get the bishop — or any official diocesan spokesperson — on the phone Tuesday to talk and answer questions were unsuccessful. So much for good public relations.
This feels like one of those moments when Bishop Barres would have been wise to set up a series of meetings at the high school and invite students and parents so he could tell them, face to face, what he was going to do — and why. Yes, it might have been loud, and unpleasant for the bishop — but he would have earned points in the crisis management school of PR for confronting the situation head-on, instead of doing it in a video from a safe distance.
Using video to explain how painful his decision was is a far cry from telling people in a crowded school auditorium, where supporters of the schools could have joined together in their grief with their bishop, a man who is widely seen as deeply pastoral.
Underneath the bishop’s decision are, of course, some painful hard truths — for Catholic education on the East End, and for the North Fork in general, where demographics in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District also show enrollment in sharp decline. With the vast majority of real estate sales in Southold Town involving second-home buyers — whose children attend school elsewhere — some smart people need to look into the crystal ball and see what the long-term impacts will be going forward.
The diocese cited a 37 percent decline in combined enrollment at the three schools since 2011. There are no encouraging signs of an increase on the horizon. Rockville Centre spent $16.3 million between 2007 and the 2016-17 school year at McGann-Mercy High School, and will spend another $2.3 million there this school year.
Openly sharing these numbers and stats sooner, and in person, would have helped students and their parents deal with the very painful reality that schools they love were headed for closure. Standing on the stage of a school auditorium, with charts and graphs prominently displayed, and going over each line — defending your position — was the way to deliver this news. No parent could have argued with these facts, as painful as they are. We can only conclude Bishop Barres did not want to go this route.
Still, a robocall is no way to break someone’s heart.
Photo caption: Students in the Bishop McGann-Mercy High School Class of 2017 celebrate their graduation last June in what will have been the penultimate commencement ceremony for the Catholic high school in Riverhead. (Credit: Elizabeth Wagner, file photo)