Gerri Gagliardi, a third grade teacher at St. Ann’s School, didn’t say much to convey the sense of grief over news that the Catholic school she’s taught in for a decade will close. Her hazel-green eyes did most of the talking.
The same went for Tracy McGovern, Robbin Vails, and Sylvia Rini, all teachers at the parochial school and stricken with anger as they continued processing the Archdiocese of New York’s decision to close the school. The school is co-located with the Shrine Church of St. Ann, which closed its doors in August 2015 for financial reasons, according to the Archdiocese. These days, the church side has remained “just a shell,” as Rini put it. The parish, meantime, merged with St. Brendan Church a mile away.
Speaking to the Norwood News, the foursome couldn’t grasp why a school that’s shown increased enrollment, fostered community, and infused a sense of spirituality in young children would suddenly be picked for closure.
“What we think is unfair is that we’re not being closed because of anything we have done,” Rini said. “It’s not poor test scores, it’s not an enrollment that’s dropping. We were on a growth spurt.”
For Vails, the fix was already in. “We’re just told four months before school ends, so even if there was a possibility that we could salvage ourselves, we don’t have any time to do it,” Vails, who teaches first grade, said.
The results, teachers argue, would be pernicious to the young ones, and particularly devastating to its seventh grade class forced to relocate at a critical juncture in their life.
A cloud of heartache now consumes the school. Its principal, Ajeia Beebe, a year and a half into the job, was once enthusiastic over new directions she could take with the school. These days, she’s adrift, according to teachers. “She was hired when the church closed that summer,” Rini said. “[T]his woman has done so much in the year and a half. And I feel like she was lied to. I feel like this was a given when the church closed. It’s made itself clear now, that this was already in the works, that this was going to happen.”
For McGovern, who teaches second grade, it’s a crucible that’s rattled her faith. She’s drafted a letter to Pope Francis, head of the Catholic Church, venting over the decision to close an esteemed school four months before the end of the academic year.
“Many of us are feeling betrayed and shunned by this whole system,” McGovern wrote.
The children have also drafted letters to the Archdiocese, pleading to keep the school open. The Archdiocese has reversed its decision on school closures in the past, though reversals seldom happen.
But teachers have kept a positive veneer for the sake of the students. Guarantees were made that the teachers will be reassigned, though they were told their paychecks will decrease and their tenure status revoked, the result of an agreement between the Archdiocese and the Federation of Catholic Teachers, the union representing Catholic school teachers.
“I wind up going backwards,” McGovern said, estimating she may lose $2,000 a year.
St. Ann’s School is one of three schools the Archdiocese decided to close by the end of the school year. Diocesan officials offered a tepid explanation to justify closing St. Ann’s School, simply citing that it cannot continue to “educate students in a school where a significant portion of the facility is unutilized.”
The timing of St. Ann’s School’s impending closure comes within the two-year anniversary of the church’s closing. The group noted that canon law dictates that a church needs to be vacant for two years or de-sanctified before diocesan officials can put the property up for sale. With the two-year mark approaching, teachers suspect diocesan officials of lining up interest to sell the property right as the church approaches its two-year anniversary. Beebe had hoped that the empty space could’ve been converted into a gymnasium for children to play in, rather than the parking lot.
A review of property records through Property Shark shows the four-story, 21,375-square-foot lot to be valued at just over $3.2 million. In most cases, the property for defunct Catholic schools are typically leased to the New York City Department of Education. A review by the Norwood News shows that of the six Bronx Catholic schools the Archdiocese announced would close in 2013-2014, three have or will be converted to a public or charter school. The rest have remained vacant.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese said the school closed because it was not operationally and logistically feasible to keep the school open without an active church. The spokesman added that although diocesan officials issue a closure, which was not motivated by a desire to sell the property, it’s up to the head of the parish to decide the fate of a closed school
Adeline Hanssen contributed to research for this article.