The Diocese of Rochester is not the first diocese to wrestle with the question of how best to sustain Catholic education within its borders. Many of Rochester’s neighboring dioceses, including the dioceses of Buffalo and Albany and the Archdiocese of New York, also have embarked upon various restructuring projects in recent years in the wake of decreasing enrollment and rising operational costs.
“This (restructuring) is something that’s happening in a lot of dioceses and archdioceses in the Northeast,” said Kevin Keenan, communications director for the Diocese of Buffalo.
According to the National Catholic Educational Association’s 2007 annual data report, total Catholic-school student enrollment in the U.S. during the 2006-07 school year was 2,320,651, with 1,682,412 enrolled in elementary and middle schools and 638,239 in secondary schools. The NCEA report noted that although the Mideaset and Great Lakes regions enroll 49.8 percent of the country’s Catholic-school population, this figure represents a decline from 54 percent over the past decade.
Due in part to declining enrollment, the Buffalo Diocese announced on Jan. 20, 2007, that it would undertake a significant Catholic-schools restructuring process and close 14 elementary schools at the end of the 2006-07 school year, Keenan said. On average, he noted, diocesan elementary schools were operating at about 64 percent of capacity.
“In 1960 we had about 80,000 Catholic elementary-school students. Today we’ve got 15,600,” he said.
This drop in enrollment is partly due to population shifts, which have left fewer school-age children living in the communities served by Buffalo’s Catholic schools, Keenan said.
Diocesan officials also took into account the significant debt shouldered by many parishes and schools. Many parishes were pouring a substantial portion — up to 80 percent in some parishes — of their weekly offertory collections straight into the schools, Keenan said.
In 1960, 1,355 priests and men and women religious provided a very affordable way of staffing the schools, but currently only 69 professed religious — 64 of them women religious — staff the diocesan schools, Keenan added.
Officials of the Buffalo Diocese made the decision to restructure after working closely with Robert F. Shea, president of Shea Consulting Services of Dallas, and a panel of representatives from across the diocese, Keenan said. One of the group’s top priorities was to formulate transition plans to make it easy for displaced students and faculty to move on to the remaining Catholic schools.
On April 1, 2007, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec announced a new funding plan for the diocesan elementary schools.
“We had a mixture of parish schools and regional schools (before),” Keenan said. “Under the new formula, every parish in the diocese provides money for an education fund so that the support for education in the diocese is diocesanwide.”
A few years ago, pastors and principals from the Schenectady area spent about 18 months learning what local families wanted in terms of Catholic education, said Sister Jane Herb, IHM, superintendent for diocesan schools in the Diocese of Albany, which includes Schenectady. Officials eventually decided to close two of the city’s three elementary schools and move from a parish model to a regional model, she said.
About a year ago officials of the Archdiocese of New York decided to implement a similar model of regional schools in lower Westchester County, said Jacqueline LoFaro, archdiocesan associate superintendent of schools for communications and public relations. These regional schools are supported by all the parishes in a given geographic radius, rather by a single parish, she said.
“Operational costs are rising. Enrollments are decreasing, the culture is changing. It’s the same everywhere,” LoFaro said.