Schools aim for stable future - Catholic Courier

Schools aim for stable future

Catholic education continues to be full of intangibles, observe Bishop Matthew H. Clark and diocesan schools Superintendent Sister Elizabeth Meegan, OP.

"Our Catholic schools provide a privileged environment for children to learn our traditional values and the Lord’s teaching," Bishop Clark remarked in a late-June interview. "I think that can be enormously helpful to the children and their families in this modern culture."

"You’re getting the best education possible, and so much more than that," Sister Meegan concurred.

Even so, the diocese faces an ongoing challenge to maintain that attachment. According to officials, Catholic elementary-school enrollment throughout the 12-county diocese dropped by approximately one-third over the past decade — from the 1995-96 tally of 11,130 students in grades kindergarten through 8 down to 7,453 students in those grades during 2004-05 — while tuition rose by an average of 7.5 percent per year. And as a result of mergers and closings, five school buildings — four in Monroe County and one in the Finger Lakes — ceased operations at the end of the 2004-05 school year.

These facilities were among 40 Catholic-school buildings to close statewide this June, including 20 in the Diocese of Brooklyn alone.

"Our problem is shared by many," Bishop Clark remarked.

Yet as the Rochester Diocese explores numerous approaches to holding down tuition costs, Bishop Clark and Sister Meegan said they believe the worst may be over. Sister Meegan predicted that "enrollment will stabilize and eventually rise" over the next few years.


Diocesan initiative


One effort to achieve such stability is a financial-aid plan being implemented for Monroe County’s Catholic Schools. Beginning this fall, the diocese is reallocating a portion of the subsidies parishes have provided to all Monroe County parishioner students, regardless of means, for use in providing greater financial aid for needy families. As a result, a one-student family that does not qualify for family aid will see its parish subsidy drop from approximately $1,550 in 2004-05 to $1,340 in 2005-06, toward a per-pupil cost of $4,790. In 2004-05, the per-pupil cost was $4,500.

All families were encouraged to apply for this financial aid through a third-party agency, Private School Aid Service. According to James Rinefierd, chief financial officer for the diocese, 1,234 Monroe County families applied, and 480 of them — or 39 percent — qualified for some aid in addition to the reduced amount of parish subsidies. He said PSAS recommended that MCCS provide a total of $1.3 million in financial assistance for those who qualified, but that budgetary constraints limited the system to allocating only $750,000. This averages to just over $1,560 per family receiving such aid.

Rinefierd noted that the $750,000 is approximately twice as much financial assistance as the diocese awarded for the 2004-05 school year. He said the additional funds enabled the diocese to provide aid to families who did not receive it in prior years and to provide larger aid amounts to some families who previously received it. In addition, individual schools and parishes provide approximately $400,000 in financial aid each year.

Nevertheless, Rinefierd and Sister Meegan acknowledged that many parents were disappointed they did not receive tuition assistance.

"It’s just unfortunate that we were not able to meet everyone’s expectations," Rinefierd said, adding that it’s too early to tell what effect, if any, the financial-aid initiative — to be conducted over a three-year period — will have on enrollment for 2005-06.


Statewide efforts


As this new diocesan approach kicks in, a statewide initiative also aims to reduce tuition for Catholic-school families. Senate bill 1939, introduced in early 2005 by Republican Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn, would provide tax credits for parents whose children attend private schools, as well as credits to private-school teachers toward the purchase of teaching supplies.

According to Dennis Poust, communications director for the New York State Catholic Conference, all of the state’s bishops have agreed to initiate a postcard campaign supporting the legislation. Poust said that 1.5 million postcards are being printed and will be sent to Gov. George Pataki and other legislative leaders during the fall, in time for the beginning of the legislative session in January.

Cardinal Edward Egan of the New York Archdiocese endorsed S.1939 during the NYSCC Public Policy Forum in March, and the NYSCC also promoted the postcard campaign during the annual meeting of state bishops on June 24.

Bishop Clark, who attended both convocations, remarked, "Obviously I favor anything that’s going to ease the burden on our parents. I think it’s only just and fair; they bear a tremendous burden. I certainly favor the exploration of tax credits."

However, Sister Meegan remains on the fence until she sees how large the tax breaks for families would actually be and whether such legislation would place any restriction on Catholic schools’ freedom to teach and promote religion.

"It would obviously be wrong for us to give up who we are for a small amount of dollars from the public coffers," she said.


Key contributions


One area where Catholic-school families appear guaranteed to benefit is through the Partners in Faith campaign, which concluded in 2004. Of the nearly $56 million raised through the capital campaign, approximately $7 million is going toward an endowment fund for Catholic schools.

Whereas Partners in Faith was the result of many generous donors, Catholic schools also have benefitted in recent years from major individual gifts. In 2001, for instance, a group of nine anonymous donors gave $15 million to DeSales High School in Geneva and six Catholic elementary schools in the Finger Lakes area.

The largest contribution along these lines has come from Robert Wegman, chairman of Wegmans Food Markets Inc., and his wife Peggy. Since 1994 the Wegmans have contributed approximately $30 million in support of six Rochester inner-city Catholic schools known collectively as the WIN Schools.

The Wegmans have "been extraordinarily helpful in stabilizing our schools situation," Bishop Clark said. "I couldn’t be more grateful to them."

Sister Meegan shared the bishop’s appreciation for the WIN initiative, but also cautioned that "what we have to do is realize the other schools do not have that kind of assistance." She said the potential for stable or increased enrollment hinges primarily on whether parents are willing to commit financially to Catholic education. "Then we could be much more definite about the future," she said.


Diocese sets model


Despite this uncertain future, the Rochester Diocese has received national and regional attention for its success in resolving prior issues in school funding. During the 1990s, the diocese implemented a centralization plan for Catholic elementary schools in Monroe County, replacing quadrant-based governance in favor of a county-wide system with a centralized board.

(Due to their geographic dispersion, Catholic elementary schools outside Monroe County continue to operate under parish-based management. Six of the seven Catholic high schools within the diocese are independently operated, most of them currently or at one time under the sponsorship of religious orders. DeSales High School in Geneva is administered by a board that includes diocesan representation.)

One of the most obvious benefits of the Monroe County plan has been the centralization of billing for school tuition.

Sister Meegan observed that centralization also has provided a safety net for the county’s Catholic schools.

"Many more schools would be closed at this time if the system hadn’t been created, if the schools had been dependent on the parishes," she said.

Bishop Clark noted that administrative centralization within Monroe County was the first of its kind in the state, and that such dioceses as Buffalo and Brooklyn are just beginning to move toward centralized systems to address problems with declining enrollment and increasing debt.

"They realize they’ve got to reorganize their governance. In a certain way, that’s encouraging to me. That sort of ratifies that what we’ve been doing is rational," Bishop Clark said.


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