St. Joseph School faces closure

  • KELSEY WALLING/Hawaii Tribune-Herald The campus of St. Joseph High School is quiet Tuesday.

St. Joseph School has long operated on a shoestring budget, a wing and a prayer.

And now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Island’s only Catholic school — which has a proud 151-year history in Hilo — is seeking community angels to ensure its survival.

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A Wednesday letter addressed to “St. Joseph ‘Ohana” from Michael Pa‘ekukui, the school’s principal, and The Rev. Apolinario Ty, the parish priest, said, in part: “Several possible projected models were shown to give perspective as to what might be a viable, sustainable model for the new school year. Unfortunately, due to accumulation of past debt to the parish and the (Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu), tuition in arrears for this and past school years, and the impact of COVID-19, the school projects a loss in every scenario proposed.”

Saying that in the next 10 days, the school “will be looking at every possible scenario to keep the school open” and that almost $500,000 “would need to be raised immediately,” the letter concluded “the future may look grim, but there may be an individual(s) who could step up and enable our school to move forward.”

Parent and school board member Misty Tyrin said the board was told that without an approved plan by May 28 to raise the money, the school would be shuttered.

According to Tyrin, the parish finance committee recommended the school be shut down “due to (a) bleak financial forecast.” She said the closure is so “the church can lease the buildings out to another organization in hopes that they can get rent revenue instead of helping the school stay afloat.”

“Our kids left school in spring thinking they were going to come back. Obviously, we can’t help COVID,” Tyrin said. “But now, they’re trying to tell us that maybe they won’t be able to come back forever. They’ve left the board and the parents scrambling, looking to raise funds, seeing if we could be able to operate on some sort of modified schedule. Otherwise, they’re going to shut us down.”

Ty, who will decide whether or not the school continues to exist, said the emergency proclamation by Gov. David Ige outlawing group gatherings of more than 10 people, including church congregations, has the parish “trying to find ways and means … to face the financial crisis now with the COVID thing.”

“We’re still ongoing with assessment and working on the possible things that still can be done,” Ty said. “Unlike in the past, when the church has been able to kind of bail them out through loans granted, and there’s still these outstanding loans that the school has. The parish cannot anymore do anything like this now, because we ourselves are in financial constraint. Outside the regular things that are being done, we have made appeals for second collections for the school already. And a plea has been made to all the other parishes on the island, before the COVID.

“But, unfortunately, with the COVID thing, just when we were expecting to reach all the parishes, the churches were all closed.”

Pa‘ekukui said the school’s “financial realities,” including the possibility of closure, have been discussed by the school board, the finance committee and other parish officials for “the past month or so.”

He added the parish can’t afford “to keep footing the bill.”

“COVID doesn’t help because it put us in a spin, even though, curricular-wise, we did an amazing job of distance learning and continuing to evaluate and grade our students,” Pa‘ekukui said.

According to Pa‘ekukui, the school will graduate only nine seniors this year.

“We’re having a small ceremony for them and their families, with all the parameters and legalities that are on us due to social distance and to keep the numbers down,” he said.

If the school survives, the projected size of the class of 2021 is 22 students.

“The school has been here 151 years, so it would be a travesty if it did close,” Pa‘ekukui said.

St. Joseph School has produced a number of prominent community alumni.

A short list includes: Marlene Hapai, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and former director of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii; Jackie Pualani Johnson, a retired professor of drama at UH-Hilo and noted director and actress; Roxcie Waltjen, Hawaii County Parks and Recreation director; Joey Estrella, retired UH-Hilo baseball coach and UH-Hilo’s former athletic director; Robert Wagner, a Hawaii Police Department assistant chief; Sam Thomas, boy’s volleyball coach at Kamehameha Schools-Hawaii and a retired assistant police chief; and Randy Apele, a retired police major.

Estrella, a 1969 graduate, is a former school board member of his alma mater.

“At the time I went to school there, it was a family-type situation,” Estrella said. “All of the nuns and the priests took care of us and kept us on the right path. And even when my children went to school there, it was just an excellent academic school — safe, secure and a real family. And to not have that as an option anymore for parents in our community would be very unfortunate.”

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Tyrin said the need for donations is immediate. She added that checks made out to St. Joseph School can be mailed c/o business manager Mrs. Jasmine Nardo at 999 Ululani St., Hilo, HI 96720. Tyrin added she will answer emails at mrstyrin@gmail.com to help those wanting to make an online donation.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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