St. Mary Star of the Sea School will close at the end of this school year.

The Astoria school has been consistently running a deficit between $100,000 and $250,000 each year for a number of years, and tuition, fees and regular fundraisers have barely covered half of the school’s total operating expenses, according to a letter sent to students’ parents, dated Jan. 20.

The closure is “due to the profoundly challenging nature of funding Catholic schools in the 21st century,” states the letter, signed by Father Ken Sampson and Principal Tom Rogozinski.

It is “not due to any impropriety or mismanagement by the current, nor any previous, leadership team.”

“Unfortunately, we’re reflecting our entire region,” Rogozinski said, noting that a number of North Coast businesses have closed recently. “This is not unique, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

The school, now in its 115th year, has been dealing with budget deficits for a long time, Sampson said. 

“We’ve been examining this for more than a year,” he said. “I don’t think it’s been an easy decision for anybody.”

Rogozinski estimated that the school requires $800,000 a year to operate. It

has been funded through a combination of regular fundraisers, donations, grants, endowments, tuition and fees, and parish money. There are 120 students enrolled this year, pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade, and 10 full-time and two part-time teachers.  

“Father Ken has been tremendous in freeing up parish funds to keep the school going,” Rogozinski said. However, while the school is a big parish ministry, “it’s not the only ministry.” 

Sampson said the normal guidelines from the Archdiocese for a parish with a Catholic school is that the parish contributes 20 percent of its collected money to support the school. In Astoria, the parish has given between 50 and 70 percent of its total revenue to the school over the years.

“In some cases, at the cost of other ministries,” Sampson said.

In a better economy, though, the school squeaked through on large, last-minute donations and bequests, Rogozinski said.  

The closure doesn’t have anything to do with incidents that came to light in 2009, Sampson said.

Sampson and Rogozinski came to the parish in 2009 after former Star of the Sea priest Ted Prentice was investigated by the Astoria Police Department and, later, the Oregon Department of Justice and the Attorney General’s office for his handling of finances in the parish. 

Investigators concluded that there was insufficient evidence to justify any criminal action against Prentice, but added that he “made a series of poor decisions about the finances of the parish.”

While he had the legal authority to make those decisions, the letter from investigators said, that “clearly, Father Prentice used parish funds in a manner that was contrary to the preferences of the parishioners.”

The amount of money involved in the irregularities – which included payments to a charitable organization, payments to three women (for giving religious instruction), travel reimbursements, payroll advances (details were not clear because of poor bookkeeping), and the filing of false IRS forms (there was no proof Prentice knew the forms were false) – came to roughly $83,000, according to a 2009 letter from Rev. Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan, from the Archdiocese, to parishioners.

Prentice was reassigned and he paid back some of the money.

“There’s disappointment (about the school closure),” Rogozinski said. “Who is to blame? Well, no one.”

“The school has been in financial difficulties for decades,” Sampson said. 

The 25th annual school auction will be held March 15 and has taken on even more significance this year.

“Ironically enough, the theme is ‘A Walk Down Memory Lane,’” Rogozinski said. “It’s kind of prophetic, I guess, in some ways.”

The school is relying on the money the auction typically raises to help see operations through to the end of the school year.

Craig Hoppes, superintendent of the Astoria School District, said he's ready to take students from Star if parents want to enroll them. 

Some adjustments may need to be made, but after two redesigns in the last 10 years, the district is well-prepared to do some shuffling, he said.

“It’s one of the things we do well. We know how to transition kids,” Hoppes said.

But generally, a jump in enrollment would do little to soften the blow of the $1.5 million in cuts Hoppes expects the district will need to make to next year's budget. However, the state may be able to assist with some one-time funding to help with any Star transition, he said.

Despite it all, Sampson said the last couple of days have been very inspiring for him.

“Just the human spirit,” he said. He has received multiple calls from other churches and educators in the area, asking how they can help, offering encouraging words.

“This doesn’t just impact our parish in an isolated way,” he said. “Our community is going to feel it.”

He’s been telling his parishioners, “We’re a family and sometimes a family faces tragedy but sometimes a tragedy has the ability to bring a family closer together.”

Reporter Deeda Schroeder contributed to this story

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