Bedford County’s only Catholic school to close

Declining enrollment cited for decision

A number of parents are disappointed they weren’t given a chance to save the only Catholic school in Bedford.

After more than 50 years, St. Thomas School is scheduled to close May 30, confirmed Amy Higgins, the school’s principal, on Friday.

“I was very saddened to learn about the school closing,” wrote Higgins in an email. “I am honored to be serving my third year as the principal, but I have been a parent here since 2009, so Saint Thomas School holds a special place in my heart.”

The school, which is part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, is closing because of declining enrollment.

Continuing to fund the school at the rate the parish was would “jeopardize the financial stability of the parish” in the long run, Tony DeGol, secretary of communications of the diocese, said.

According to DeGol, the parish provided more than $200,000 a year to help finance the school, funding more than 50 percent of the school’s operational costs. DeGol said the ideal financial plan would be to have a third of the school’s costs covered by fundraising, a third covered by tuition and a third covered by the parish.

The Altoona-Johnstown diocese reported the school currently has 24 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Higgins reported an additional 29 students in pre-kindergarten for a total enrollment of 53 students. However, the diocese does not include pre-kindergarten students in its schools’ enrollment counts.

In 1992, St. Thomas School had 112 students enrolled, according to DeGol. For the past few years, student enrollment has hovered in the 20s and 30s, excluding pre-kindergarten.

A handful of parents at Thursday’s school board meeting presented possible alternative solutions to the school’s closure, brainstorming fundraising solutions and marketing options to increase enrollment. Another idea proposed was to have the school separate from the parish and operate independently, leasing the building from the parish.

William Pratt, a school alumni and parent of two St. Thomas students, said he was disappointed the parents didn’t have the opportunity to come up with a solution to support the school instead of giving up.

“The causality and logic from the church makes sense,” Pratt said. “But I feel that the school wasn’t given a chance to improve its enrollment.” He added parents knew about declining enrollment but were not made aware of the parish’s financial situation.

“We would like to find a ‘win win’ solution that allows the Catholic Church to keep the school open while eliminating the financial burden the school places on the parish,” Pratt said. “This is in the best interest of the church, the community and the children.”

Pratt said there were talks of the school closing in both 2007 and 2013. But he said parents met and even exceeded fundraising goals to keep the school afloat.

Stephen Yanoshak, the school board’s president, said the fundraising goal for 2017 was $72,000, but the school raised more than $100,000.

For the 2018-19 academic year, Yanoshak said the school was aiming to raise an additional $15,000 to $20,000 from last year’s total. He said he was somewhat blindsided by the parish’s announcement because parents and board members were not provided financial statements or opportunities to address the problem.

“The parish knew what the school meant to the parents and the community,” Yanoshak said, adding how he feels a Catholic education is the best education.

Despite active fundraising, DeGol said it still “wasn’t enough to relieve the parish from having to provide substantial financial support.”

Mike Berkey, one of the parents at the school board meeting, said: “If Father Richard wanted to close the school, that is his decision, but give the school a year — a year to prove to him and the parish that it can handle the burden. And he should’ve notified the staff and school board members. How he went about it was all wrong. This school means so much to the city of Bedford.”

Chris Witt, another parent, said he was saddened and disheartened by the announcement of the school’s closure. Witt said he remains hopeful and optimistic that the parents can change course and “find an amicable solution for all parties involved.”

The Rev. Richard Tomkosky could not be reached for comment.

The students at St. Thomas are being encouraged to attend Holy Trinity School in Altoona.

St. Thomas opened on Sept. 7, 1966, and was founded by Edward McConnell, the pastor of the St. Thomas the Apostle Parish at that time.