Parents offer insights on emerging schools’ plan

The educational consultants working with the Office of Catholic Schools to develop a strategic plan for Catholic schools held four public town hall meetings across the Archdiocese of New Orleans last week, and some of the most pointed questions raised by parents and other observers centered on proposals to phase in tuition increases over the next three years to cover the actual cost of education.

“If I’m losing market share, raising the price will not allow us to attract more kids,” said Jack Dardis, a financial consultant who sent 10 children through Catholic schools. “I see a basket drop (in the collections taken up at church parishes) if you go to that.”

Dr. Leonard DeFiore of The Catholic University of America stressed to the 50 people who attended the March 29 meeting at Notre Dame Seminary that all proposals were tentative and not etched in stone.

He said, however, that the year-long study has identified several warning signs, especially in terms of finances, that if left unaddressed would have a serious impact on the future of Catholic schools.

“We are trying to ensure the long-term viability of Catholic schools in the archdiocese,” DeFiore said.

Public feedback important

Catholic schools superintendent Dr. Jan Lancaster also emphasized that “the conversation” with the public was vital to producing an effective plan, and these were in no way final proposals.

“A lot of parents have phoned and emailed me, and those are important one-on-one conversations,” Lancaster said. “We still have a long way to go in the process, and even after the recommendations come out, we want to explain these proposals at greater length. These conversations are necessary. The town hall meetings show how much people care about Catholic education.”

The rationale to raise tuition to the “true cost” of education is to bridge the average gap of about $700 a year between what parents pay to send one child to a Catholic elementary school and what it costs the school to educate the child.

In essence, every family sending a child to Catholic elementary school is being subsidized because of that gap, DeFiore said. More than 6,600 surveys returned by parents and others indicate about one-third of all parents could afford to pay the true cost of education, which would lessen the financial burden on the schools.

“I hate to pick on orthopedic surgeons, but we shouldn’t be subsidizing orthopedic surgeons,” DeFiore said.

Those families who could not afford the higher tuition would be eligible for discounts based on a review of their financial situation, not unlike the confidential FAFSA analysis that families go through in paying for their children to go to college, DeFiore said.

Another major proposal to raise revenue is promote a archdiocesan-wide stewardship campaign that would raise offertory giving by 25 percent over the next three years. Catholics currently contribute about 1 percent of their income to the church, by far the lowest percentage among major denominations, DeFiore said.

The Archbishop’s Community Appeal, which raises money annually for programs of Catholic Charities, also could be expanded to include specific gifts to Catholic education.

If all revenue benchmarks were reached, DeFiore said an additional $21 million a year could be available for schools, which would help provide tuition assistance and increase teacher salaries.

Other proposals involve strengthening Catholic identity and creating a common archdiocesan grading scale. Another possibility is to have elementary cover grades preK-7, with high schools covering grades 8-12. Currently, 779 eighth graders attend elementary school, while 2,049 eighth graders are in high school.

DeFiore also said the study group has identified about 15 elementary schools that are in serious danger of closing or merging, based on current enrollment, the 10-year trend in enrollment, the differential between tuition and cost of education, and the amount of subsidy the school requires.

No schools will be closed for the 2012-13 academic year, but there almost certainly will be mergers and closings the following year.

The feedback from the first four town hall meetings will help DeFiore and Dr. John Convey, his Catholic University colleague on the study, to fine tune proposals that will be presented at four more town hall meetings this month: April 25 at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette (6:30 to 8 p.m.) and at Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero (7 to 8:30 p.m.); and April 26 at Annunciation in Bogalusa (7 to 8:30 p.m.) and Pope John Paul High School in Slidell (7 to 8:30 p.m.).

Lancaster said she welcomes phone calls and emails from parents. She can be reached at jlancaster@archdiocese-no.org or at 866-7916 (office).

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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