Dunkirk Catholic school’s future is uncertain, principal says

DUNKIRK, N.Y. (WIVB) – Andrew Ludwig’s biggest fear as principal of Northern Chautauqua Catholic School in Dunkirk is that they run out of “miracles” to keep the doors open.

To Ludwig, the miracles are unexpected donations for the financially strapped school, and the need is bigger than ever.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Diocese of Buffalo cut financial subsidies for some 30 Catholic schools across the region.

For a school that relies on charitable donations for about 50% of its $1.3 million in operating expenses, the cuts equated to almost $2,000 per student.

As a result, the school had to increase tuition.

Ludwig believes the increase resulted in an enrollment drop in Pre-K through 8th grade, which he wants to avoid for future years. The enrollment stands at just under 170 pupils.

“Success to me is a full school,” he said.

Therefore, the school does not charge the full cost of an education, which averages about $7,500 per pupil.

But Ludwig said the school cannot charge that much, “because we are one of the poorest schools, if not the poorest school in the Diocese.”

10 hospitalized in NFTA bus hit-and-run

Recently, St. Andrews Country Day School in the Town of Tonawanda announced it would be closing.

The news upset Ludwig. He wondered if his school would be next.

As a result, he wrote an opinion piece published in The Buffalo News about how increasing tuition to cover the losses is not a sustainable model.

“As costs to educate students rise, schools are forced to raise tuition,” Ludwig wrote. “These tuition raises will eventually surpass families’ ability to pay.”

Mike Taheri, a devout Catholic and critic of the Diocese’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal, and three others, read Ludwig’s opinion piece. The group was featured in a recent News 4 Investigates story when it stopped donating to parishes or added restrictions to contributions in protest of the Diocese’s decisions and “lack of leadership.”

In the Easter spirit, they sent Ludwig a letter with four checks worth $2,000 for school expenses.

“He’s got tremendous faith,” Taheri said. “He loves this school, and he’s committed to making certain the school stays open, and we are too, to the extent that we can.”

Those “miracles” brought Ludwig to tears.

“It just means the world to know that there are people out there, and all they have to do is hear our story, and they’re willing to chip in and try to help out,” Ludwig said.

Andrew Ludwig, principal of Northern Chautuaqua Catholic School in Dunkirk

Their letter to Ludwig was also critical of how the Diocese and Bishop Michael Fisher have managed operations during its bankruptcy phase. They also challenged Fisher to match their gifts from his own personal resources.

“The decision was made by us due to the lack of leadership presently in the Diocese of Buffalo, and their handling of various church closings, the clergy sexual abuse cases, and other issues,” their letter read.

Buffalo Diocese: ‘We can say we’re sorry, but we need to ante up’

A spokesman for the Diocese said it is committed to Catholic education, which it considers “an important mission of the church.”

But the Diocese said the subsidy program won’t be revisited until after it exits bankruptcy, which could still be a few years away.

“We’re working to find a way to support our schools going forward,” the spokesman said. “That is definitely our goal.”

As for the Bishop matching the gifts, a Diocesan spokesman said “it’s not practical for the Bishop to match all requests in the community.”

“If he was a wealthy person, he would love to do it, but it’s not practical,” the Diocesan spokesman said.

In addition, the Diocesan spokesman said the school is in “decent financial shape” and that any decision to close would come from the school’s Board of Trustees, not the Diocese.

Mike Taheri

Taheri, a local attorney, shared the story with his former law partner, Peter Todoro, who sent an additional $1,000 check to the school.

“I got choked up,” Ludwig said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting here thinking that it’s hopeless and this place is going to go under. And I open the mail and sure enough, there’s a letter in it from generous people like Mike Taheri or some other generous people.”

More from News 4 Investigates

While these checks were coming in, the school’s Board of Trustees met to wrestle over a decision to increase tuition again.

Ludwig, and four of the 11 trustees, pushed back.

As a result, seven members of the Board of Trustees abruptly resigned

Ludwig said there will not be a tuition increase for the coming school year.

But his concern is that the school’s financial situation may not survive through the Diocese’s bankruptcy case.

“There has to be other support, and we’re just trying to hang on until we find that other support,” Ludwig said.

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.

Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *