Parents hear official news at meeting Wednesday evening
By David Yarger
Wednesday evening, parents, students and staff received the official word at an emergency parents meeting that Niagara Catholic Junior/Senior High School would close for good.
Niagara Catholic - the only Catholic high school in Niagara County - had been open since 1975. It was the merger of Bishop Duffy, Madonna and St. Mary's high schools.
Judi Nolan Powell, the chairman of the governing board of Niagara Catholic, said the closing occurred due to financial cuts by the Buffalo Diocese - a big part of the school's financial backbone and 20 percent of the school's revenue stream - and decreasing enrollment rates.
Powell, a Niagara Catholic alum, expressed how close she is with the school and how the news was upsetting, not only for her, but families that attended the meeting.
"I'm the oldest of six, all of whom came to school here," she said. "Our school is really a family setting. It's a place where kids feel safe, it's an alternative to what they considered a difficult situation in the public system. ... The emotions ranged from anger to tears."
Powell noted decreasing population in the city, as well as a declining economy, were hits the school had taken, but she said NC always found a way to pull through.
"I can speak from history that I've been here; every year we found a way to make it happen and take care of the kids," Powell said.
The news is a tough blow for seniors in the Class of 2019 hoping to graduate with their closest peers. Powell said there is still hope for the seniors, though, as Niagara University is trying to step in and provide a learning environment for the group.
"Niagara University is helping us. They're looking at creating, if they can, somewhere on their campus, where our seniors can go to school together. Most of our students graduate as sophomores or almost juniors in college because of the NU relationship and the college credits they get while they're here. So, they will be able to continue that all together ... at least the kids can graduate with their degree with their friends," Powell said.
Powell added that, if students choose to attend another Catholic school, the tuition would be transferred. However, for those who opt for the public school, Powell said they didn't know when they'd be able to return the funds. The Niagara Catholic tuition is estimated at $9,000 per year, but Powell said that, with financial aid, very few people pay close to that amount.
Following the meeting, several parents walked out teary eyed and respectfully declined to comment on the matter, but those who did expressed a deep devastation.
Colleen Larkin said her son would've been a junior for the 2018-19 school year and her daughter was a Class of 2015 graduate.
"I guess at this point we are going to scramble to look for a new school option for our son," Larkin said. "I was upset because this morning I was like, 'Why are we now just telling parents?' Everything seemed OK. But as we're learning, the Diocese just basically let them know within the last month they were pulling any subsidies that we had and that was a tremendous amount of money."
Marsha McWilson, a recording artist who would help the school raise money at notable events, said she had seen tremendous growth in her son since coming to Niagara Catholic.
"I put him in Niagara Catholic and he's went from low grades to ... honor roll student," McWilson said. "I don't know where I'm gonna put him. He was doing so well in this private school."
McWilson added she never pictured the school closing and she thought parents would come together at the meeting and discover a solution, but they were alerted nothing could be done.
Both parents felt Dr. Robert Cluckey, principal of the school, did not deserve to face the heat of parents during the meeting. Both agreed he was a pivotal aspect of the school that made it a family-friendly environment.
"Dr. Cluckey could barely hold his composure," Larkin said. "It is very hard to see him talk about not being able to say goodbye to the kids."
McWilson said, "That man has a heart for this school. ... Because how he demonstrated that with my son, one-on-one - he was a one-on-one principal, which we haven't had in a very long time. ... I gave a speech before we all left that 'Dr. Cluckey, thank you for keeping us together and being such a great principal,' and he felt he let everyone down. I said, 'This is not your fight, it's not your fault.' "
Inside the meeting, there were no representatives from the Diocese to field questions, and both parents felt, because of the absence, a majority of the heat was put on Cluckey and Powell's shoulders, which parents felt to be incorrect.
"We, as parents, we wish they were here, but of course they're not here. And we wish that ... they would've given us a heads up," McWilson said. "I do believe it was unfair for Dr. Cluckey to take on the weight of that and they should have sent ... a representative out here."
Larkin added, "I do think somebody should've been there ... to take the heat rather than Dr. Cluckey and Mrs. Nolan Powell. They were just as blindsided as anyone else now that I've listened to them speak and that breaks my heart."
Powell said she felt the Diocese did not need to be present at the meeting and felt the absence let the meeting flow smoother.
"I would have rather been able to talk openly and not point fingers, and that's what would've happened. They would've been the enemy, they wouldn't have had the answers anyway, and I think we could handle it just as well.
"Some parents thought that the Diocese should be there, so that they could tell them how angry they are. Believe me, the Diocese knows," Powell said.
The final day for the Class of 2017-18 was last Thursday.
Update on Upcoming Niagara Catholic Events
NFP reached out to Michael Volpe, director of advancement at Niagara Catholic, in reference to upcoming events the school had planned.
Volpe said the 5K Run/Walk and the 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament have been cancelled, but events such as the Alumni Awards Dinner on July 13 at The Como Restaurant, Big Red Fest at the school on July 14, and the golf tournament in honor of Peter I. Certo on July 16 at Niagara Frontier Country Club could possibly still occur.
Volpe noted the golf tournament and dinner fees would have to be covered by someone other than Niagara Catholic now, and Big Red Fest would need a new location, because it was set to take place on the NC football field.
Other School Districts an Option
NFP also reached out to Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie about the closing.
Laurrie said he felt a lot of sympathy for the families who are going through the closure at the moment, and he had spent a lot of time in the building with his father in the past.
Laurrie said the district is brainstorming possible ideas for the school building, including turning it into a type of trade school to help prepare students for the work force. Laurrie said it's the district's calling to give hope to the students in the area and prepare them for the best possible future.
He added he's received calls from Niagara Catholic families and staff members. Laurrie said some families are receiving personal tours of Niagara Falls High School and that, although all teaching positions are filled, he would welcome staff to come on as substitute teachers.
"We just want to be as welcoming as possible to the families and employees of Niagara Catholic," he said.
Paul Casseri, superintendent of the Lewiston-Porter Central School District, said in a release to the Lewiston-Porter Sentinel, "Lewiston-Porter will be hosting a Niagara Catholic family night for those students and families that will be coming to Lewiston-Porter. We understand how difficult this must be and will do our best to create a seamless transition to L- P. We have not set the date yet, but we are looking at July 12 or 16 in the evening. More details are to follow soon."
Casseri said the school does accept tuition-paying students and may be able to provide some transportation as part of the tuition package for students outside of the Lewiston-Porter School District.
Grand Island Central School District Superintendent Brian Graham was out of town and unavailable for comment.