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Candy-Sale Battle Threatens Catholic School's Fate

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A Roman Catholic elementary school in one of the poorest sections of Philadelphia is struggling to stay float this year after a divisive battle over students' candy sales last year. St. Bonaventure School is in the Fairhill section of the city, a tough neighborhood where parents have worked together in the past to drive away drug dealers and prostitutes from nearby streets. It serves an enrollment of black and Hispanic 1st through 8th graders whose parents were willing to scrimp to pay the tuition for a school that an accreditation team once called "an island of hope in a sea of despair.

This fall, however, enrollment fell by more than 100 students, from 213 last year to about 100. Some parents say the decline can be traced to the school's attempt last year to force their children to sell candy and other items to supplement tuition.

In September 1989, parents were told their children would each be required to sell $250 worth of merchandise. If they did not, the parents would have to pay $100 in cash in addition to the regular tuition of $600 for one student, $850 for two, or $1,050 for three or more.

The Rev. Gerald Kelleher, pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish, said that children have been required to sell candy for several years to raise funds, but that school officials were lax in enforcing the requirement.

Last year was different, he said, because the school projected a $24,000 deficit. To make up the deficit, Father Kelleher informed parents that the candy-sales requirement would be strictly enforced.

Over the course of the school year, few students were cooperating by selling the required amount of candy, Father Kelleher said, so he sent a stern letter to parents this past April, reminding them of their obligation. The letter also threatened that those who did not comply would be denied registration for this year and would have their report cards and transfer records withheld. Such students would also be barred from the annual school trip to an amusement park.

"Some of them went bananas," he said of the angered parents.

A similar policy involving raffle tickets at another archdiocesan school last year angered parents there. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1989.)

By the end of the school year, no pupil at St. Bonaventure had sold the amount of candy required, and only about 70 parents had paid the $100. The school withheld the diplomas and records of the others' children.

A group of parents sued St. Bonaventure, charging that the school had unilaterally raised tuition beyond what they had contracted to pay.

'An Impossible Request'

Asking students to sell that much candy and holiday merchandise "was just an impossible request in that neighborhood," said David Sambolin, the Community Legal Services lawyer who represented the parents.

After settlement negotiations were urged by a local judge, parish officials agreed to release the diplomas and school records of the students and provide a procedure for parents to obtain refunds of the fund-raising money. Mr. Sambolin said that the 30 families who sought the lawsuit were so upset with the episode they did not re-enroll their children this year.

Father Kelleher said that only about 100 children have enrolled in the school this year, so he has had to lay off three of the school's seven teachers and double up grades in an attempt to stay within the budget. The fact that he laid off three more-experienced white teachers in order to keep younger black and Hispanic teachers on the staff has resulted in further discord at the school.

Tuition increased to $800 for one child, and the mandatory fund-raising activities have been eliminated.

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