JERSEY CITY — The home of the most storied high school boys basketball program in New Jersey history is closing its doors.
St. Anthony High School will suspend operations at the end of the 2016-17 school year in June due to a lack of funding and dwindling enrollment Bob Hurley Sr., the school's president and basketball team's Hall of Fame coach, announced on Wednesday.
"It is with enormous regret that we announce today that in our negotiations with the archdiocese there were too many things that we were unable to do with increasing student enrollment, having some money long-term and satisfying some of our debt to the archdiocese," Hurley said. "So that at the end of this school year, we will be closing."
The Archdiocese of Newark came to the decision to close the small school near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel after meeting with St. Anthony officials earlier on Wednesday, determining that St. Anthony's fervorous fundraising efforts were not enough to overcome its crippling financial issues.
"Our issue, and we've discussed this at length for decades, is the tuition we charge," Hurley said. "Countless times over the years we were told to raise the tuition, which would help us to meet our expenses, or to become a charter school. In our desire to keep St. Anthony the way its always been, we have not been able to address the financial issues and therefore after help from the archdiocese, our debt to them has grown too large a number. And though I believe we would be in the black for this year, the long-term thing with enrollment and also having money in the bank, it's just not something a little school can do."
Hurley said in recent days that enrollment was not far off its typical number but was not as strong as the school hoped. He described the possible closure as "a cloud hanging over the school all year" when it came to enrollment efforts. And despite a series of successful fundraisers held since the school's dire money situation was revealed — Hurley said more than $1.2 million has been raised for the school this school year — there was still a financial gap that the school was unable to close to solidify the institution's future.
“We were asked to have an enrollment to start next year that would be way higher than we possibly could, they wanted us at 200, and right now we’re at 160. So what would happen is, all year long we’ve never been able to say to families, ‘Yes, we’re going to be open," Hurley said. "We had some last-minute efforts to try to raise money, and the big issue for us was in addition to being able to get to the end of the school year, we needed to have half a million dollars in the bank for September. That’s a big number, and that was not a number we were going to be able to reach.”
The closure comes months after St. Anthony announced in September that this school year could be its last if between $10 and $20 million wasn't raised to establish an endowment. Hurley was optimistic back in January that the fundraising had progressed enough to assure at least another year for the school and he was encouraged when enrollment for the 2017-18 school year was allowed to begin in February with an increased tuition.
But the tone seemed to shift in March when the decisive day for the school was announced to be April 5, and more and more of Hurley's comments seemed to make closure seem inevitable.
St. Anthony opened in 1952, and Hurley took over as head basketball coach in 1972. It didn't take long for him to turn the team into a state champion. Over the next four decades he built the Friars into the most prolific team in New Jersey and arguably the most successful program in the nation.
The Friars won 28 state titles during Hurley's time at St. Anthony. The Tournament of Champions has been played 28 times, and St. Anthony won 13 of them. That includes the 2015-16 season when the Friars went 32-0, the eighth Bob Hurley team to go undefeated.
Four of his squads won national championships, and in 2010 he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was named the USA Today National Coach of the Year in 1989, 1996 and 2008. In 2011, he became the 10th coach in high school basketball history to reach the 1,000 win plateau. More than 200 St. Anthony basketball players went on to play collegiality, with more than 150 doing so on scholarship.
This was far from the first time St. Anthony faced financial distress — but the boys basketball team's success, paired with the presence of a legendary head coach, helped keep the school open until now and avoid the fate of many Catholic schools in New Jersey. St. Patrick's, arguably St. Anthony's biggest rival, closed in 2012 before reopening independent from the archdiocese as Patrick School, and Marist in Bayonne is on the brink of closure as well.
Turning St. Anthony into a charter school was on option that was seriously considered. Opening independent of the archdiocese like Patrick School did, was not.
“We’ve had no discussions about that, we’ve exhausted a phenomenal board of trustees, we’ve exhausted every idea. We really believe in Catholic education. So that’s the direction that we wanted to stay in," Hurley said. "Many, many discussions about becoming a charter were held, and we really felt that the faith-based education was very important. And just like I said, going down fighting but not making the tuition too high for the kids or deciding to reinvent ourselves."
St. Anthony's basketball success was unprecedented. But Hurley was more concerned with what will happen to the students displaced by the school's closure than the end of the basketball team.
“This doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work for a lot of reasons," Hurley said of the school's financial model. "Whether its school choice or vouchers, there’s countless issues about why 140, 160 kids who were thriving, will now go into another pool. And what happens with them?"
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