Parents upset about St. Thomas School closure take action

Parents upset about the scheduled closure of Bedford’s only Catholic school filed a petition against the pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, alleging that the Rev. Richard Tomkosky committed numerous ecclesiastical law violations and proposing alternatives to the school’s closure.

St. Thomas School is scheduled to close at the end of this academic year, confirmed Amy Higgins, the school’s principal, in January.

The school is closing be­cause of declining enrollment and pressure from the “substantial financial support” the parish provided over the years, according to Tony DeGol, secretary of communications of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The petition, submitted by Chris Witt, a parent of St. Thomas School students, states, “In order to prevent the disruption of the families affected by your decision, we ask that you reverse your decision and allow the school to remain open for the 2018-19 academic year.”

Witt also alleges in the petition that Tomkosky committed five Code of Canon Law violations, alleging “the rights and obligations of the faithful have been disregarded,” “parents will no longer have access to provide a Catholic education to their children” and “the school should be held in esteem and supported at all costs, monetary and moral.”

Witt said, “We feel that we have a case and a right to keep the school open.” Witt submitted the petition, which has about 300 supporters, with the help of the St. Joseph Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 1984 to “defend Catholic truth and uphold Catholic rights.”

Instead of closing the school, Witt and petition supporters propose creating a nonprofit entity to run the school in accordance with Catholic education principles. The entity would be run by a school board and lease the school building from the parish to relieve it from building maintenance and other property-related concerns.

“The process by which it was closed or set to be closed we felt was wrong and short-sighted. There was not due diligence on part of the church, on part of the parish, I should say,” Witt said. “And it was kind of a total shock to the community down here, not just the school community, but the entire Bedford community.”

Tomkosky received the petition March 30 and has 90 days to respond, Witt said. If Tomkosky rejects the petition’s proposals, then a formal petition would be filed with Bishop Mark L. Bartchak. Witt sent a petition file notice to Bartchak on Thursday.

Witt said, “We were provided a lot of misleading information. That’s why we wanted to present our side of the story, our case and the facts we had on our side.”

Witt and others pointed to discrepancies in reports of the parish’s financial commitment and the exclusion of pre-kindergarten students in the enrollment counts.

DeGol told the Mirror in January that there are 24 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Higgins reported an additional 29 students in pre-kindergarten for a total of 53 students. The parish does not include pre-kindergarten students in its enrollment counts, DeGol said.

DeGol previously said that the parish provides more than $200,000 a year to subsidize the school’s operation. But parish financial records from 2006-17 supplied to the Mirror show otherwise.

According to the records, the parish provided $85,000 for the school in 2017. Of the year’s total revenue of $293,333, the parish contributed about 29 percent.

The only time in the past 12 years the parish provided more than $200,000 was in 2009. Records show the parish subsidized $238,095 that year.

When asked Thursday about the petition, DeGol expressed surprise and said he did not know about it and could not comment on its contents.

DeGol said Monday it’s traditional to count kindergarten to the highest grade for official enrollment counts because pre-kindergarten students do not pay a full year’s tuition. “Even with 53 students, even if you were to count them as the official enrollment, that’s still not enough for a school to thrive,” he said. “In the case of St. Thomas, it’s clearly not enough.”

“The point is there are just too few students,” DeGol said. “I understand that there are a few families that do not want to see the school close. And again, we thank them for their support. We are very glad they are having such a wonderful experience in the Catholic school.

“But the parish is maintaining that it can no longer afford to support the school, and that is an issue that cannot be ignored,” he said. “If so much of that money is being used to support a school that really is not financially viable because the enrollment has dwindled to such a low number, that really is not fair to the parishioners of St. Thomas parish. There’s a broader issue here to look at, and it’s the survival of the parish.”

DeGol said he cited Tomkosky on the $200,000 parish subsidy estimate. “I don’t have specific financial figures,” he responded when pressed for more details about the parish’s finances.

The Mirror left multiple voice messages for Tomkosky. When the Mirror called the church’s secretary Monday and requested to speak with Tomkosky, the secretary replied, “Father is not available” before promptly hanging up.

William Pratt, a parent of two St. Thomas students and petition supporter, said “People just deserve the truth of the matter without propaganda and numbers that don’t make sense.”

“Not only now do the students who want to attend a Catholic school have to travel about 60 miles round trip, he didn’t consult the parents or the school board or anything like that, which he is supposed to do,” Pratt said of Tomkosky.

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

Pratt said, “Give us a year. Let’s see what we can do and go from there.”

Witt said the petition is not an attack on Tomkosky or the parish, but an effort to save the school that opened its doors more than 50 years ago.

“We’re still hopeful for a peaceful resolution where both sides can reach an amicable solution to this. And we think we’ve presented multiple ways that can be reached. We just haven’t gotten the ‘OK’ from the parish side, from Father Tomkosky,” Witt said. “We’re just out to save the school.”