Collaborative schools’ meeting sharpened our focus

aymond    Can you recap the all-day meeting you held Sept. 24 with priests and school administrators about the strategic plan for Catholic schools?
    We think the process worked very well. We asked everyone coming to the meeting to go online beforehand and give a “yes” or “no” to each of the  recommendations, and if they said no, to give us a better recommendation. Doing that allowed people to voice their opinions and give us options to look at.
    What about some specific issues?
    There was great consensus on important issues such as Catholic identity and on the atmosphere that is necessary for a Catholic school to fulfill its mission. We had consensus on governance and on some of the services that we as an archdiocese should provide for Catholic schools. We knew the two most debatable or controversial topics would be finances and the grade-level structure.
    What about the financial issues?
     There are a lot of recommendations in the study, some of which would cause a lot of difficulties for parishes and perhaps even for parents. Everybody expected the study to say that we would raise tuition significantly, and that was not a recommendation. The recommendation is that we need to charge a “just” tuition, but we want to keep it as affordable as possible. We all know that Catholic education – for every child in every school – costs more than the actual tuition that is charged. So, how do we make up the difference between the cost and the tuition? High schools – both those operated by religious orders and by the archdiocese – have to find ways to do that. In parochial schools, the cost-tuition question is really the responsibility of the parish. There were many recommendations in which parishes would be taxed or assessed a certain amount. Some of those recommendations were very realistic, and some were not. When you put all the recommendations together, it is a pretty high tax. We had very helpful discussion on that.
    We will continue to look at this issue. I will get the advice of my brother priests. We will discuss this with what we call the Parish Share Committee as well as with the Presbyteral Council and the deans. Then, we will come up with some recommendations that we think could gradually implement a new financial plan.
    A lot of this is predicated upon efforts to help people come to a better sense of tithing in the Catholic Church. As many people know, when it comes to the real meaning of tithing, by and large Catholics give less than people of other denominations. Some of the financial projections we have made are based on increasing the number of people who give in the spirit of tithing so that we would be able to do more for Catholic education.
    The other issue is that if a parish does not have a Catholic school, to what extent should that parish put money into a scholarship pool for Catholic schools? Also, to what extent should that parish pay for its own parishioners to go to a Catholic school in another parish? We have many recommendations on that. We are saying yes to all of those things – but the cost to the “yes” is what has to be worked out.
    What about the grade-level structure?
    Many of our high schools have eighth grade, and some even have sixth and seventh grades. Some of our elementary schools have eighth grade. We have stand-alone middle schools that offer fifth, sixth and seventh grades. When you put that conglomeration together, it just makes for a very unwieldy situation. This is not a criticism. This has happened over many generations. But there is a crisis in enrollment, and it is becoming bigger. We have gone from approximately 50,000 students to 38,000 in the last seven or eight years. There are fewer students to go around, and schools that have traditionally done well or been feeder schools may not be in the same position in the next couple of years. We have to at least look at all of this.
    There was a lot of discussion and a lot of very respectful diversity on this issue. What I found very helpful is that people expressed their opinions very respectfully and gave us good ideas. I listened attentively and was constantly looking for clarity and some kind of compromise position that would serve us well. But, to be honest, I don’t have one yet. We have to go from here.
    The Office of Catholic Schools and Dr. Jan Lancaster, our superintendent, will take all of this information, and then we will look at three or four different possibilities that can serve well the family of Catholic schools. This is what is important to keep in mind. I asked the clergy and the school administrators to think about this not just in terms of what’s good for your school. Obviously, we always look at it first from that perspective. But there’s a second perspective – what’s good for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the family of Catholic schools here?
    Our job now is to take everything we’ve heard and come up with a plan that will move forward Catholic education in the archdiocese and try to preserve a sense of unity and collaboration, and that’s going to be a challenge. The schools office will discuss those plans with me, and we will then refine those. Eventually, having listened to all of this, we will make some decisions.
    Did you get good input?
    I felt very good that everybody had the opportunity to give their opinion, not necessarily verbally, but through a computerized opinion poll process. Everyone’s opinion was counted, and we were able to count the percentages on all the recommendations. Even though there were no definite conclusions, the meeting accomplished its purpose, and this entire process has been very, very helpful. I know there probably are some people out there who are a little cynical and think Dr. Lancaster and I have already made decisions. I can’t change that perception, but I can assure everyone that, at this point, we don’t know what we’re going to do. We’re going to be very dependent on the power and the influence of the Holy Spirit. I really felt the presence of the Holy Spirit moving with us even though there was diversity of opinion.
    What about mergers?
    That is still on the table and will be coming. I’ve already met with Dr. Lancaster about the list of schools that are struggling in terms of enrollment and finances. We will ask them for a final financial and enrollment report to make sure we have the absolute latest statistics, and then we will have to look at their future. We hope to deal with the mergers in the next couple of months. Then, we should be able to have the final plan and its recommendations ready by the end of the calendar year.
    I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the coordinators of this study, Dr. John Convey and Dr. Leonard DiFiore, from Catholic University. A planning process of this magnitude is never easy, but the stakes for Catholic education in this archdiocese have never been higher. The diligence of our priests, school administrators, parents and Catholic Schools Office has borne great fruit. I thank God for their passion for and commitment to Catholic education.
 

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