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Catholic priests, principals of Catholic elementary schools and parents are being encouraged to work together in determining future school closings in the Diocese of Buffalo.

Without specifying any numbers, Catholic school officials said Monday that fewer elementary schools will be open in the next academic year, as the diocese seeks to implement a 2011 strategic plan aimed at strengthening Catholic education in Western New York.

More than three dozen Catholic elementary schools in Erie and Niagara counties have been asked to map out possible reconfigurations.

The diocese sent out letters Monday suggesting that school stakeholders meet in 12 geographic “clusters” – the same term diocesan officials used while planning a massive restructuring of parishes that concluded a few years ago.

“We put together who we thought ought to be talking to whom,” said Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic schools.

While more than two dozen elementary schools in the Diocese of Buffalo have been shut down over the last decade, diocesan officials said more will have to be closed so that scarce dollars aren’t being wasted on maintaining buildings.

“There will be fewer, but there’s no magic number,” Cimino said. “This has been in the offing since that document was finalized in 2011. There are inefficiencies. We just have too many buildings.”

The strategic report released two years ago found that Catholic elementary schools were operating at 68 percent of building capacity and competing with one another for a shrinking pool of potential students.

“It doesn’t make any sense to keep pouring money into roofs and windows and boilers, when we’ve got kids,” Cimino added.

The ultimate goal is to improve programs and make a Catholic education available to any family that seeks it, she said.

“If there are too few kids in a school, you can’t provide special programs, advanced programs and enriched programs,” she said.

The diocese wants a reconfiguration plan in place by January, in time for registrations for the 2014-15 academic year. The new configurations would be in place next September, Cimino said.

The diocese set several parameters for the schools to consider in their deliberations. Buildings should have a capacity for 400 or more students, with a gymnasium, cafeteria, outdoor play space, science lab and art room. Schools should have prekindergarten through eighth grade, with two classrooms per grade, although exceptions would be made for smaller schools serving a unique market or maintaining a Catholic presence in a particular area.

In addition, at least 60 percent of the school’s funding should come from tuition.

Cimino pointed to the recent merger of Trinity Catholic Academy, Ambrose Catholic Academy and Notre Dame Academy in South Buffalo into a single school on Abbott Road as an example of a successful reconfiguration.

The merger, brought about by stakeholders in the three schools, has allowed more resources to be concentrated on educating students, rather than maintaining three separate campuses, she said.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com