Catholic schools merging to one in Twin Cities

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LEWISTON – The three remaining Catholic elementary schools in Lewiston and Auburn will be merged into one school beginning this fall, with a new consolidated governing board and a first-ever parochial middle school in the Twin Cities.

The new school, yet to be named, will include two campuses, officials said during a news conference Thursday at Holy Cross School in Lewiston. The plan calls for Holy Cross to house prekindergarten through fifth grades and St. Joseph’s School, also in Lewiston, to become a middle school for students in grades six through eight.

The St. Peter and Sacred Heart Elementary School in Auburn will no longer be used for classes.

The merger was preordained earlier this year when Bishop Richard Malone named a task force to develop a specific plan for consolidating the three Catholic elementary schools in the two cities. The details were released for the first time Thursday.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said parent Sam Ouellette of Lisbon as she led two children toward Holy Cross on Thursday to pick up yet more children. “I don’t think we have the enrollment to support three schools. It’s just too expensive.”

Cheryl Robert of Auburn was more philosophical about the changes. “It’s just a building,” said Robert, whose daughter, Coreen, is a fourth-grader at St. Peter and Sacred Heart. “It doesn’t matter where you go. It’s what happens inside the school” that’s important.

The merger will not save parents or the three parishes any money right away, but the 650 pupils now spread over three schools in two cities will be offered more programs, services and learning opportunities, church officials said.

About 200 of the pupils are middle-school age.

Although the church will operate only two school facilities rather than three, saving day-to-day costs, the new arrangement will entail some start-up costs, according to the Rev. Frank Murray, chairman of the special task force and pastor of St. Peter and Sacred Heart parish.

He said the merger plan is more likely to contain costs for the parishes, rather than saving money. The task force was committed to spending the same amount next year that is being spent at the three schools this year, Murray added.

Murray said the merger does not signal a financial crisis for the L-A churches, but rather it recognizes declining enrollments and rising costs.

Annual tuition will be an estimated $2,000 at the new school, which represents a rough average of the three different tuition rates at the existing schools.

A handful of teaching positions will be eliminated, hopefully through natural attrition, Murray said.

The new school board will be drawn from the existing three elementary school boards and might also include people with special expertise, Murray said.

In addition to the overall goal of strengthening Catholic education in L-A and preserving the “Catholic identity,” the merger will accomplish four other goals, Murray said:

• end competition for students among the three elementary schools;

• provide better and more efficient use of resources;

• improve curriculum for both elementary and middle level students; and

• contain costs.

Murray said the long-term goal is for St. Dominic’s High School in Auburn to administer the middle school program. Murray said the bishop has approved the idea in concept, but requested additional information before giving it his blessing.

Donna Sawyer and Bonnie Marsh, who have been named co-principals of the new school, said more than 30 interviews with teachers have been conducted and work has started on developing a new curriculum. The three schools employ about 50 teachers.

“We jump out of bed in the morning, there’s so much to do,” said Sawyer, presently the principal of St. Peter and Sacred Heart. “Change can be difficult, but we are very excited.”

Marsh, principal of St. Joseph’s, said she and Sawyer plan to work so closely together so that teachers, parents and students will be able to approach either of them about any issue.

Both women stressed the benefits of merging the teaching staffs, which will enrich the educational programs for students while also improving professional development and collaboration.

Bishop Malone had wanted to be in Lewiston for the announcement, Murray said, but he was out of state for an already-planned engagement that could not be broken.

“We did not want to wait to give people information,” he said.

Staff photographer Jose Leiva contributed to this report.

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