Since my Jan. 18 announcement concerning Catholic schools, I have received many letters from good and faithful people who wish to know more about my decision, disagree with it or express their support.
Whether they agree or disagree is important to me, of course, but even more crucial is that people understand why I made the decision and the factors that led to it. I believe that it will be through knowledge and understanding that we can tackle not only the issues facing Catholic schools but also others issues that may be obstacles to a full flowering of our ministry together in our diocese. When we dialogue, exchange ideas, have honest and open conversations and, above all, pray together, we can move mountains, just as Jesus said.
To that end, and fully aware that many parents are understandably upset and frustrated by the closures of schools, our top diocesan officials are scheduling meetings with parish leaders, principals and parent representatives of the schools. I am confident that, despite the frustration many people are feeling, these meetings and future conversations will be guided by the Holy Spirit and infused with mutual Christian respect and love.
One of the most important questions that has emerged since the announcement is, how did we get to this point? What happened? I tried to communicate these issues to you in a November letter to all school parents (the letter also was published in this newspaper) about the formation of our special Schools Task Force. But let me take a few moments here to explain again.
Over the past decade, our enrollment has dropped by more than 45 percent in Monroe County alone. As it has declined, we have experienced an ever-widening gap between what it cost to educate our students and what we have brought in through tuition to fund their education. Meanwhile, our costs, like everyone else’s, increased, for such things as health benefits, insurance, heating, lighting and maintenance. As a result, the average cost per student nearly tripled — from about $2,700 10 years ago to more than $6,000 now.
What did we do about all this? We tried a number of strategies, and a combination of them, to combat this disturbing trend, from raising tuition to help defray rising costs, to hiring one of Rochester’s top ad agencies to market our schools, to eventually consolidating and closing some schools in years past.
This school year, after yet another period of enrollment decline, the situation became even more urgent. Our schools faced a projected deficit of more than $1 million, which would have grown to more than $5 million next year. The great majority of our schools individually were operating in the red.
I then called together a group of 23 people from many areas of expertise to form a special task force to find ways to help solve our financial problems and stabilize our system. The process was facilitated by the independent Center for Governmental Research, which counseled us that, based on the financial situation at hand, decisive intervention was essential.
After much discussion and analysis, the task force determined that we simply could not afford to operate and maintain facilities that were well under capacity while at the same time facing constantly dwindling enrollment and increasing costs. In addition, we were told, we simply had to lower tuition considerably if we were to have any chance of keeping financially pressed families who already were enrolled or attracting new families.
In the end, after much thought and prayer, I accepted the recommendation that we close these 13 schools, and that our Monroe County school tuition be decreased by nearly 30 percent.
It was not easy to make the decision to close so many schools. As you can imagine, I wrangled with it for many days, examined data, met with staff, asked many questions.
I came to the conclusion that if we failed to act, if we let this situation go, if we took no action to stem the tide of enrollment decline, we would have bankrupted the system. I don’t think that I am exaggerating when I say that letting this financial situation go unchecked would eventually forced us to close all of our schools.
I just could not let that happen. I daresay none of you would have let that happen.
I deeply care about Catholic schools. Indeed, that is why I assembled the task force, which I asked, above all, to find ways to preserve the tradition of Catholic education so that we could not collapse the system. I told you as much in my letter to school parents last fall.
As we move forward, I truly believe that we can make these 11 remaining schools a rousing success. I very much want to spend our resources on students, not half-empty buildings.
This is not to say that my decision has not caused people pain. Faculty and staff will be displaced, and I have asked our diocesan staff to make every possible effort to help as many people as possible find new jobs within the schools or in the Diocese, and to assist them in searching in our community if need be.
I would be remiss here if I did give special thanks to our teachers, staff and parents for their commitment and personal sacrifice for Catholic schools.
As well, I continue to pray for the children most affected by these closures, that their parents will choose another Catholic school so that their wonderful and rewarding Catholic school experience can continue. I have asked our schools to be especially creative in finding new ways to use existing space so that we can seat as many children as possible.
To those who are angry and frustrated, please know that I feel your pain and share it.
I truly hope that you will come to understand that we had no choice but to deal in decisive ways with a significant threat to our system of Catholic education. Only then could we give it a fighting chance to endure.
Peace to all.