Photos by Lynne Deliman
Petitioners are calling on Bishop David Zubik to rescind an upcoming merger between St. Philip School in Crafton and St. Margaret of Scotland in Green Tree.
By Jamie Wiggan
More than 2,500 supporters of St. Philip School in Crafton have signed a petition calling on Bishop David Zubik to overturn a planned merger with St. Margaret of Scotland School in Green Tree.
Declaring the merger “invalid,” petition organizers claim the processes leading to it “lacked transparency” and failed to leave room for community input.
“At no point were the parish and school communities provided the information the board used to make its decision, nor were they adequately informed about the process itself, ” a letter circulated online by petition leaders states.
The petitioners have retained a canon law expert who helped them prepare a formal appeal with Zubik’s office seeking to overturn the merger.
In response, a statement issued by Thomas Kunz, vicar for canonical services in the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, labels the impending school closure “unique in that there is no canonical process involved.” Without addressing the appeal directly, the statement defends the diocese’s handling of the merger and calls on parishioners to support the creation of a new school.
“A thorough process involving many people over many months was followed in making this difficult recommendation to Bishop David Zubik. We ask people to consider using their energy to come together with us to build a newly merged school that offers the strongest Catholic education possible.”
Although they were aware merger talks were taking place, members of the St. Philip School community say they were caught off guard when the diocese announced Feb. 12 a formal recommendation had been approved by Zubik.
“From the parent level it was very vague — at the parish level it was even more vague,” said Alexis Barone-Katze, a St. Philip School alumni and parent of a current student. “…People outside the boards did not really know anything.”
Barone-Katze and others on the eight-member petition committee said they thought the board that initiated the merger and submitted the recommendations to Zubik was not representative of the broader school and parish communities. They also said they believe the Crafton-based elementary school could continue to operate independently based on what they know of the financials and enrollment numbers.
“We do believe that the school itself is in a financial position that is better than advertised,” said Michael Hoff, a parent of three St. Philip graduates who credits the school and parish community for rooting his family in Crafton.
Consolidations and mergers have been a recurring theme within the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, as a shrinking regional population has combined with a broader wave of secularization to hollow out parish congregations and school populations alike.
During a merger in 2016, St Philip absorbed three other local parishes: Guardian Angels in the West End, Holy Innocents in Sheraden and Ascension in Ingram.
More recently, St. Margaret merged with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Carnegie, and Saints Simon and Jude in Scott Township to form the new St. Raphael the Archangel parish in January 2021.
Setting in motion the St. Philip – St. Margaret school merger, in July 2020 Zubik commissioned the South Regional Catholic Elementary Schools (SRCES) – a regional committee to facilitate mergers and cooperation between nine elementary schools in the southern and western portions of the Pittsburgh region.
Rev. David Poecking, SRCES board president, said he began immediately to meet with officials from both schools and parishes to discuss the possibility of a merger. Rejecting claims the decisions were handled without community input, Poecking said each parish assembled a representative committee of school and church affiliates.
Once the discussions were underway, Poecking said the communities were kept abreast by several public letters detailing developments with the merger.
“This has been a well-known process,” he said. “There were a number of communications that went out to the general public.”
Declining to share details from the reports on grounds of confidentiality, Poecking maintained there was a clear need to consolidate. Before presenting the resolution to the SRCES board, Poecking said the committees carefully examined the schools’ enrollment and financials, and also surveyed the needs of the community in terms of identity and purpose.
The Feb. 12 release states, Zubik approved the merger upon reports detailing “careful study of financial and demographic data, student enrollment trends, consultation with parish and school communities, and consideration of other important and relevant information.”
According to data compiled by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership, St Philip began the 2020-21 school year with 218 enrolled students, while St. Margaret’s enrollment was at 123.
Should the merger continue as planned, Poecking said next steps – such as choosing a new name and hiring a principal – will be overseen by SRCES regional administrator Sharon Loughran Brown.
The petitioners are determined, though, to keep the school doors open, arguing it plays an essential role in the communities of Crafton and neighboring municipalities.
“Part of the concern that we have here with this closure is that the lack of opportunities that some of our families will have to private faith-based education, within not only the communities of Crafton and Ingram but also [Pittsburgh’s western neighborhoods],” said Barone-Katze. “…The school itself is a foundation – a pillar.”
Founded in 1839, St. Philip is one of the oldest catholic parishes in the region. The elementary school was founded in 1915.
— Amanda Treible of the Pittsburgh Media Partnership contributed data to this report.