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A new blow for O’Reilly

Diocese of Scranton maintains today’s deadline for receiving ideas to save high school.

LARKSVILLE – Attorney Tom O’Connor launched the second big meeting of Bishop O’Reilly High School supporters with a string of bad news.

The Diocese of Scranton denied his request for 10 more days to come up with a plan to save the school. The local “consultative group” set up to give the diocese input on the plan had apparently agreed with the idea of merging O’Reilly and three Luzerne County high schools, housing the students at Wilkes-Barre’s Bishop Hoban building. And there is a hint that renovations to Hoban -- to accommodate the influx of students -- are already in the planning stages, O’Connor said.

Then he shrugged it all aside. “We will have our say in this. The bishop may not like it, but we will have our say.” The crowd burst into sustained applause, then its members got down to work by splitting into groups and refining plans to save their school.

The diocese announced the proposed high school merger Nov. 14. Local consultative groups set up by the schools then had until today to comment on the proposals. But large support groups beyond those small consultative groups – such as this one -- sprang up, demanding a chance to give their own input. The diocese gave them the same Dec. 4 deadline.

O’Connor had written Bishop Joseph Martino, asking for an extension, but said he was told by school Superintendent Joe Casciano that the deadline could only be extended by a day or two. Before the night was over, the group agreed to submit a preliminary plan today on ways to reverse the school’s cash shortfall – some have estimated the debt at more than $600,000 – but vowed to submit more extensive plans later this month.

They moved ahead even after O’Connor reported that a person from the school’s consultative group had told him the group “basically supported the merger.” O’Connor stressed, however, that he hadn’t seen anything in writing.

And they moved ahead even though O’Connor and others suspected the diocese is already working on plans to renovate Hoban. O’Connor pointed to a proposed merger timeline in the Nov. 30 edition of The Catholic Light, the diocesan newspaper, which suggests the diocese “begin renovations to Bishop Hoban” Jan. 1, 2007. He questioned how such work could start so soon.

“If that’s true, a lot has already been done behind the scenes,” O’Connor said.

Undaunted, by night’s end the crowd at Keystone Garden Estates assisted living center had come up with a wide range of ideas, adding to some that had already been proposed at their first meeting Nov. 27:

• Regarding finances, Mike Judge and Ken Krogulski said that they had asked a diocese official what had to be done to save the school. “The bottom line is money,” Judge said. “Parishes don’t want to continue to support the school, for whatever reason.”

He said he couldn’t get a firm figure on how much parishes actually chip in to keep the school running, but that a key way to reduce costs would be to increase enrollment. Judge and Krogulski recommended letting students who can’t afford full tuition enroll for $100 a month. If 24 more students came into the school at that cost every year, the school budget would be balanced in four years, they said.

• Speaking for a group of people who had mulled athletic issues, Frank Sobeck said they had estimated a merger would cost about $100,000 in new sports uniforms and repainting the gym floor for a new team with new colors. He suggested that, if the merger happens, an athletic committee be set up with representatives from all the schools to hire an athletic director and coaches, intramural teams should be set up for students who don’t get onto the new, larger varsity teams, and memorabilia and trophies from all schools be put on display in the new one.

• Bruce Cottle, heading a group looking at fundraising, had a long list of ideas from alumni appeals to selling bricks to pay for improvements in handicap access at the school. They had also discussed asking parents with no children in the school to sponsor students who couldn’t afford full tuition.

• Mary Beth Mullen said that marketing ideas her group kicked around including reaching out to potential students earlier by setting up a database of baptisms in area churches and sending the kids birthday cards, and by sending letters of congratulations as well as promotional pamphlets to sixth-graders about to enter junior high school. O’Reilly currently teaches grades seven through 12. Other ideas included billboard ads, a pair of basketball game tickets included in alumni appeals, and reaching out to businesses for support.

O’Connor ended the meeting by scheduling another one next Sunday – well after the diocesan deadline -- at 1 p.m. in the same building. He thanked Big Top rentals for providing free chairs and the owners of Keystone Gardens for donating the space. He pointed to a can on a countertop and said any donations – intended to help defray the cost of heating and lighting the room for the meeting -- would go toward the Alzheimer’s Foundation instead.

Then they sang the school’s alma mater.

“Courage, truth and justice, these will be our battle cry. So live on in glory, O Bishop O’Reilly High.”

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