The Catholic Education Foundation for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles recently announced it was receiving a $50 million gift from an anonymous donor. The funds are to be allocated over the next five years for new elementary and high school students enrolling in one of the 212 Archdiocese of Los Angeles schools in the Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
To Valley residents like Gina Franco, who lives in Sylmar, the announcement felt like the rubbing of more salt into the wounds left by the knowledge that St. Ferdinand, the historical Catholic elementary and middle school in the City of San Fernando, would not be among them.
The LA Archdiocese had already announced in April that St. Ferdinand — which had educated multi-generations of families here since being founded in 1929 — was one of six Catholic schools that would be closed at the end of the 2020-21 academic school year.
Another Valley area school, St. Catherine of Sienna School in Reseda, was among those six.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles said in an earlier statement it had decided to shutter the six schools permanently due to a “continued decline in enrollment and a growing financial deficit, even before the financial impact of the pandemic,” making the operations of those schools “unsustainable.”
The Archdiocese further stated it would combine St. Ferdinand students with other nearby Catholic schools, including St. Didacus School in Sylmar, help families enroll their children in those schools and find placement for staff in those institutions as well.
“We were completely shocked” by the announcement of the donation and the amount, said Franco, whose three children all attended St. Ferdinand including son Jacob, 12, who recently completed the seventh grade. Franco is part of a parents’ committee actively trying to save the school.
“The reason we were shocked: We recently had a meeting (with LA Archdiocese officials) on June 8. It was our second meeting with them and our last ‘Hail Mary’ [to try and keep the school open]. We had a donor willing to donate a generous amount” — said to be between $400,000 and $1 million — “and we asked them to please consider this donor. It was about a 2 1/2 hour meeting, and not once during the meeting was the [possibility of a] $50 million donation mentioned.”
Franco wasn’t alone in her frustration.
Bea Plessner Rulli not only went to St. Ferdinand as a student, she taught there and was married at the parish church. Her three sons also attended St. Ferdinand.
“We were pretty irate to say the least,” Rulli said. “[The Archdiocese is) not being very genuine or transparent with us. They haven’t shown any good faith. It’s just a lot of talking that the [St. Ferdinand] Church doesn’t have the [necessary] finance committees or pastoral councils.”
She noted there also wasn’t a parent-teacher organization or separate group that could “see what’s going on behind the scenes” at the school.
Rulli, too, referred to the potential private donation by a former student to help the school stay open, but felt as if St. Ferdinand’s closure was “a done deal.”
“There was no discussion, there was no ‘this is where we’re at and this is what we need.’ They got rid of every fundraising [event]…everything,” she said.
She said the parents were told by the Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese that the schools and the Archbishop would perform a “feasibility study” on whether St. Ferdinand and the other closed campuses could reopened again in 3-5 years.
The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol made several attempts to reach LA Archdiocese or foundation officials to inquire if any of the donated funds could be used for reopening St. Ferdinand.
A foundation official referred the SFV Sun/El Sol back to the released announcement which, again, indicated the new funding would go toward financial aid for new students enrolling in its schools.
Franco previously told the SFV Sun/El Sol that St. Ferdinand needed between $300,000 and $400,000 to continue operating. St. Ferdinand parents also said they had sent emails to Regional Auxiliary Bishop Alejandro Aclan, head of the San Fernando Pastoral Region, to try to get answers about the closure, but got no responses.
Franco said, “the optics don’t look real good” for the Archdiocese to be receiving this large of a donation but not responding to queries about whether or not it could be used to support reopening the schools.
“There were six schools that were closed in Los Angeles alone — six,” Franco said. “It wasn’t an abundance of schools; it was six. To us, it’s not making sense as to why they’re moving forward knowing this donation was coming in, and stating it is to help parents with tuition costs and other things that affected the schools during the pandemic, which is one of reasons we were told that our school was closed.”
The parents committee is reaching out to St. Ferdinand alums, especially those with a background in law or accounting. Franco said the committee wants to know if they can have the school’s finances independently audited.
“We’re looking for support from the alumni and the community in this effort. We haven’t seen the ‘financials,’ and we’re pressing to look them over and see where we were failing financially,” Franco said.
She said some parents are hopeful the feasibility study will eventually return St. Ferdinand to the City of San Fernando. But that would be in the future.
“Do we think they’re willing to open [St. Ferdinand] and keep it open this coming year?” Franco asked. “They were very clear that that wasn’t going to happen. But again, this was prior to us knowing about this donation. Because I think, as a committee, we would have pressed harder to understand how that money is being allocated.”