WATERLOO — Slow down.
Over more than an hour Thursday, that was the message Sacred Heart parishioners delivered to the Cedar Valley Catholic Schools Board of Education about the potential closing of their school. They were among at least 150 people who filled the commons at Blessed Maria Assunta Pallotta Middle School for a meeting where the board discussed a report on consolidating the three CVCS elementary buildings.
All four options presented in the report include closing Sacred Heart School near downtown on West Fifth Street, which has no room for expansion. Two of the other options would close the existing Blessed Sacrament and St. Edward schools, as well. Estimated costs for the renovations, additions or new buildings range from $11.84 million to $15.41 million.
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“I think we need to slow down, stop and think this over,” said Mary Sandberg, one of 20 people who addressed the board during a public comment period. Like Sandberg, most of the speakers were associated with Sacred Heart Church and its school.
After deliberating for 1-1/2 hours publicly and in closed session, board members indicated they had heard the concerns. The board voted unanimously to keep Sacred Heart School open during 2018-19.
Grade sharing will occur between Sacred Heart and the two other buildings depending on which schools don’t have enough students for a full class at individual grade levels. Transportation will be provided to those who have to switch schools. In the meantime, discussions will move forward on the future of the schools.
In April, the board commissioned ISG Struxture Architects to create the facilities report as it works to sustain the Waterloo-based school system. It looks at physical conditions of the elementary school sites and their accessibility, security and safety plus the potential presence of asbestos if renovations occur. The report also considers CVCS’s declining enrollment trend and student capacity for each building.
A number of people acknowledged school consolidation would be necessary. However, a seeming lack of transparency in how the board came to consider closing Sacred Heart concerned some of the speakers.
Reading comments from his wife, who was home sick, Don Johnston noted that last weekend only a few parishioners had “any inkling” the school could be closed when they heard about it at church. “My point is, process is important,” he said.
The only notice many had about the potential closing came through stories in the media, Deb Miller suggested. “And, I’m sorry, that’s shameful.”
She added, “Slow down, take a breath. Is this really the way we want to close the school? ... This has disaster written all over it.”
Several spoke of Catholic social justice principles and pointed out many of the Hispanic and Burmese immigrants enrolled in the school system attend Sacred Heart. Some of those immigrants also spoke.
“Education is our children’s future,” said Seng Bu, adding Sacred Heart provided the best education for Burmese students.
“Thank you to those who speak up for the Burmese,” said Paul Htun. “The school might (have) a lot of issues, but it’s still a perfect and happy place for kids to learn and study and seek their education. Abandoning Sacred Heart would be abandoning the Burmese community.”
The Rev. Ken Stecher, a pastor at Sacred Heart Church, said the building discussion should not forget the children. “I hope we keep that in mind (so) whatever we decide doesn’t hurt the Catholic elementary school kids.”
“It’s not the bricks and mortar I’m arguing for, it’s the community,” said Sandy Maiers. “My point is our mission, and I feel like we’re abandoning it. You are putting the entire Catholic school system in Waterloo in jeopardy.”
Bryan Molinaro-Blonigan’s family made a major contribution to the consolidated middle school where the meeting was taking place. He is the son-in-law of the late Bob and Mary Ellen Molinaro.
“When we made a large investment in this school, we were told that decision would not affect the parish schools,” he said, which included grades six to eight before Blessed Maria opened. “If this promise is broken and abandoned, I don’t know how you’ll be able to fundraise again.”
Board members emphasized proposals to close one, two or all of three of the buildings in favor of some kind of merger is about money, though.
After the public comment period, board member the Rev. Scott Bullock noted, “One thing I didn’t hear a lot about was the financial situation. The reality is finances are a factor.”
CVCS business manager Deb Thurman said if Sacred Heart closed next fall it would save about $335,000 in reduced support staff and other operational costs that “could be allocated however the board would choose.”