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Dialogue begins on future of Brighton school building

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BRIGHTON — In a joint press conference held June 13 representatives of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Presentation School Foundation announced a truce in the dispute over the future of the Our Lady of the Presentation School building in Brighton. The two sides said they have committed to an ongoing dialogue about the potential sale of the building.

The archdiocese was heavily criticized for abruptly closing the school June 8, two days before the last scheduled day of classes, in order to avoid a rumored occupation of the building. Parents were notified by phone the evening before the closure and daycare was provided at nearby St. Columbkille School.

The early closure prevented students from participating in planned graduation ceremonies.

Our Lady of Presentation Parish was closed as part of the archdiocesan reconfiguration on Aug. 30, 2004. The school was also slated to close last year. However, following appeals by parents and politicians the school was granted a reprieve until the end of this academic year to give parents more time to find new schools for their children.

Several months ago, the Presentation School Foundation offered to purchase the school building from the archdiocese. The proposal included establishing a preschool, elementary school, after school and summer programs, and adult education services.

However, the property was never put up for sale by the archdiocese, and in a January 17 statement it announced that the building would be the new location of the Metropolitan Tribunal. The archdiocese had agreed to sell the current Tribunal building, located on Lake Street in Brighton, to Boston College in June 2006. The agreement to sell the building, which also houses the Office of Religious Education, was reached last year when the archdiocese sold 43 acres of its Brighton campus to Boston College for $99.4 million in order to fund the archdiocese’s settlement with more than 550 victims of clergy abuse. The Tribunal and surrounding land will be sold for an additional $8 million.

The archdiocese shut the school early “based on information it had received that a group of individuals were planning to conduct an unauthorized use of the school later this week,” according to a statement announcing the closure.

“The decision to close the school is regrettable, but a necessary action in order that we are able to insure that our students and staff are safe,” Bishop Richard Lennon, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, said in the statement.

The statement also announced that Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley would “revisit the future use of the building.”

The decision to close the school was met with outrage from parents who gathered in Oak Square Common to protest. Parents maintained that while rallies had been scheduled, no sit-in had been planned.

The decision also drew sharp rebukes from local politicians.

Although City Councilor Jerry P. McDermott, an alumnus of Presentation School, acknowledged that some parents “probably would have sat-in on the building,” he said preemptive action was unnecessary.

"Frankly, if they did occupy the school, it would have been warranted," he told the Associated Press. "Not only is it despicable and evil to lock children out before their graduation, but it's a public relations nightmare."

Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino said he was “outraged” by the decision to cancel the graduations and offered Faneuil Hall as an alternate site for the ceremony.

Students were met with cheers and applause as they received awards for everything from patience to math at the June 10 graduation. Then, teachers handed out their diplomas with a handshake and a hug.

Molly Saccardo, who presented the diplomas to her sixth grade class, said she was “flabbergasted” by the decision to close the school early. Most of the parents, students and teachers met outside the school in the morning even though the school had been closed the night before, she said.

"We wanted to be together," said Saccardo.

Una Simmons, whose daughter is in the second grade, said the controversy has made the school community stronger, and that the downtown graduation was a “wonderful, dignified way to finish out the school year.”

Simmons said she was still upset by the early closing.

"I was devastated. I couldn't believe they would do that to the kids," she said.

When 6th grader Meghan Magee received the call that classes were canceled early she didn’t believe it.

"I thought it was a joke. I thought it was a prank call," she said.

A rally across from the school in Oak Square followed the graduation and parents maintained a presence in the square until the conclusion of the June 13 meeting.

"We regret the unpleasant events of last week and misunderstandings, but we've had a very good dialogue and conversation, and I think a very productive outcome," said Archbishop Seán P. O'Malley after a three-hour meeting on June 13 with the Presentation School Foundation.

Reading from a joint statement, Presentation School Foundation chairman Kevin Carragee said, “Following a substantive discussion, during the course of which both parties developed increased understanding of the needs and interests of each other, and the archdiocese developed a new understanding of the proposal.”

"The archbishop is committed to working with the Presentation School Foundation in a good faith effort to pursue the goal of a negotiated sale of the Our Lady of the Presentation School property to the Presentation School Foundation," he added.

"The conflict of months and the intense conflict of recent days, that's ended, and what's now occurred is that a dialogue, an open discussion and a commitment by both parties to a good faith effort has begun," Carragee said.

"All protest activity at the site will end today," he said. "This is the beginning of a process that will help heal wounds in Allston and Brighton, but also in the broader archdiocese."

Approval from several archdiocesan groups, including the Finance Council, Real Estate Committee and Reconfiguration Review Committee, will be needed before any final plans can be made, said Catholic Charities president Father J. Bryan Hehir, who participated in the talks.

"We talked about the sharing of the building," said Father Hehir. "The sharing of space in the building may still be a necessity because the archdiocese does have space needs for its administrative programs in this area."

Catholic Charities may contribute to the social programs that would be included in the use of the building, but both groups would need to further discuss establishing a school at the site, since there are already several Catholic schools in the area, he said.

Father Hehir reiterated that the archdiocese closed the school early in order to protect the students.

"A number of things came together in a kind of crisis situation and the motivation for doing what was done was to protect children. That was clearly the motivation," he said.

The two groups will meet again sometime within the next two weeks, he added.

In a telephone interview with The Pilot the day after the meeting, Menino said he is pleased with the progress made in the situation and said the archbishop showed “real leadership” in meeting with the parents.

"It was a very tenuous situation, at best, before the meeting was held," he said. "A lot of folks weren't happy with the situation, but the archbishop took it under his control."

"If you have communication, you can work out most issues," he added. "The archbishop has said it's a priority, and he's making it a priority."

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