Photo | Shane Rice
Carlisha Cunningham has watched two sons finish at the historically Black Heart of Mary (HOM) Catholic School and go on to graduate from McGill-Toolen Catholic High School. Her third son probably won’t have the same option.
Despite a successful fundraising campaign that brought in $450,995 to allow the school to stay open for at least one more year, it appears it will close in July.
“I’m very hurt,” Cunningham said. “My younger child has been going there since the age of 2-and-a-half.”
Cunningham said the family can’t afford another Catholic or private school. Little Flower, the next logical destination, is over $100 per month more than HOM and just won’t fit into the budget.
“I just don’t know what to do,” she said.
To add insult to injury, Cunningham said, neither the church nor the Archdiocese of Mobile has reached out about possible financial aid to attend another Catholic school. A spokesman for the archdiocese has previously said scholarships would be available for HOM students.
The situation could force Cunningham to choose public school for her son, even though he has never been to public school before.
“I still can’t understand why the school is closing,” she said. “We raised the funds. What’s the issue?”
Donations for the school’s GoFundMe page have been coming in from all over the country and as far away as Canada. The organizers of the campaign gave themselves a month to raise the $350,000 needed to cover the school’s annual budget. They surpassed the goal by more than $100,000.
The largest donation came from the Entergy Foundation at $75,000. Other large, offline donations were anonymous and ranged from $20,000 to $50,000.
Meeting that wasn’t
Despite raising about $100,000 more than it needed to stay open, it appears the Heart of Mary Catholic School Board will not meet to rescind a previous motion to close the school at the end of the school year.
Board member and HOM alumnus Karlos Finley said the plan was always to give the fundraising a month to get the money needed to pay the school’s budget for a year. If the fundraising reached its goal of $350,000, the board would meet to debate rescinding the previous order.
However, just hours before the group of seven was set to meet, Finley said he and others received an email canceling the meeting. Attached to the email in question were two letters — one from Mobile Archdiocese Vicar General William Skoneki and one from the Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi, archbishop of Mobile. Both of the letters, Finley said, addressed the closing of the school.
“I am very surprised,” Finley said of the meeting’s cancellation. “I am very perplexed right now.”
Finley said he was one of two board members absent when the vote to close the school was originally taken. He said he and another member had prior engagements. Finley said he was contacted later and asked to vote “yes” to make it unanimous, but he declined.
It’s confusing to Finley that despite individuals, corporations and small businesses coming together from all over North America to fund the school at a time when the school needed money to stay open, those in power decided to continue forward with closing Heart of Mary.
“I’m perplexed as to why the powers that be won’t share the information behind the decision,” he said. “It seems like the goal line continues to move.”
In a statement to Lagniappe, the Mobile Archdiocese said the letter Rodi sent the board was thanking them for trying to make it work.
“The primary reason for the closure is the lack of students,” the statement read. “The board has stated that there are only approximately 70 students and it appears that enrollment will decline further next year. A letter was sent thanking the board for all their efforts.”
As for enrollment numbers, Finley said the archdiocese’s numbers are inaccurate. HOM currently has 80 students enrolled and has commitments from as many as 100 more for next year, if the school doesn’t close, he said.
By the time of the scheduled board vote, Finely said he had reached out to six of the seven members and at least two were on the same page.
“I think they took the ability to raise the money as a real showing of direction,” he said. “It proved that it was something much larger than all of us.”
Finley believed other members could’ve been convinced to support the vote to rescind the closure. No other school board member could be reached for an interview. McNichol, Vice President John O’Neill III and Charles Mayhall III did not return calls seeking comment. Cecelia Snider and Lamar Lott did not respond to Facebook messages seeking comment.
Even if the board had voted to rescind its previous motion to close the school, records confirm Rodi would still have the authority to overrule it. An incorporation document for the school signed in 2020 names Rodi as the sole agent and gives him, not the board, discretion over a number of decisions, including the approval of budgets or expenditures of more than $25,000. Rodi also has sole discretion when it comes to selling off the school’s assets.
When asked what, if any, future plans the archdiocese had for the property and buildings belonging to the school, Archdiocese of Mobile spokesman Rob Herbst wrote in an email that the property and buildings belong to Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish.
While this is likely true, an incorporation document for the parish confirms that Rodi is the sole member and has the authority to make a number of decisions there as well, including the approval of any budgets or expenditures over $25,000, just like at the school. The document also puts Rodi in charge of the “acquisition, sale or encumbrance of real property of the parish,” among several other things.
The school could have even more students now, Finley said, if it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic. When the school’s new board took over about two-and-a-half years ago, they had planned to recruit at local Catholic churches without schools and area daycares. However, when the pandemic began in early 2020, the board had to rethink its approach.
“Even though we managed to engage alumni in the education field and developed a new curriculum … and put ourselves in a position to make a huge push for enrollment, that was right when the second wave of COVID hit,” Finley said. “Even when waves would subside, COVID was always kind of out there.”
With the pandemic ending, Finley said, if the school had been allowed to stay open, members could’ve enacted their recruitment plan. Even without a serious recruitment push, efforts to attract more students to the school were succeeding, as it had commitments from more than 100 students for next year.
One of those students is Zoey Turner, a current sixth-grader at HOM. This is her first year at the school, transferring in from public school.
“I love my class, my teacher and the individual instruction I receive,” she said. “I like the smaller classrooms.”
As for the school closing, Zoey said, “I hate it.” She doesn’t know what she’s going to do for school next year.
Zoey’s favorite subject at school is English.
“I love to write,” she said.
Zoey’s father, Elston Turner, said it was the smaller class sizes and individual attention that attracted the family to Heart of Mary Catholic School and away from Orchard Elementary.
“We wanted to put her in a smaller setting with individual attention,” he said. “We were sold on her going there. We had heard so many good things about the school.”
Overall, the Turners have had a good experience at Heart of Mary this year, they said, especially through the pandemic.
“There have not been as many COVID issues,” he said.
Like many parents, Turner said he and his wife gave to the fundraiser to help keep the school open and, like many, they can’t understand why the school is still set to close, despite raising so much.
“We thought it was money issues, but we did the money thing and now there are no answers to why they still want to close the school,” he said. “We hope they’ll keep it open.”
Alleane West watched her sons pass through Heart of Mary and now she is shepherding her four grandchildren through the school. The children attend pre-K3, kindergarten, second grade and fifth grade. One of West’s grandkids requires one-on-one attention and he gets it at HOM.
“The classes are not overly large,” she said. “The teachers are able to communicate with his mom on a regular basis daily. I don’t think that would happen at another school.”
West said her second-grader transferred from Council Traditional School, but is now performing better academically.
“He’s more engrossed,” she said. “He absolutely loves his new school.”
The fifth-grader, West said, has turned failing grades at another school into A’s and B’s at HOM.
“The attitude has completely changed,” she said.
It’s inappropriate, West said, to force the students to change schools again, especially since they’ve found a home.
“Students should be allowed to go to a school where they feel comfortable,” West said.
The West family will transfer to Corpus Christi if HOM closes for good.
Heart of Mary Catholic School has some prestigious alumni, including former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin and retired U.S. Marine Gen. Gary Cooper.
Finley said the school churns out these alumni because it inspires the youth in Mobile to be great.
“It’s the instilling of faith, first and foremost,” Finley said. “It’s about an entity greater than yourself that will be there for you when things get bleak.”
The success of prior generations at the school is also inspiring, he said.
“This is a community of achievers,” Finley said. “When you see someone who looks like you, from the same community as you, achieve, it makes you feel like you can achieve too.”
For Cooper, it’s the words of an instructor at the school that stuck with him when he was thinking about quitting the Marine Corps that have pushed him forward throughout his life.
“I think it taught us that under uncertain circumstances there’s always room at the top,” he said. “Children are better off with individuals who know and understand their circumstances.”
This story was updated to clarify information from Finley and to correct the author of one of the letters sent to the HOM board.
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