As economy slides, Catholic schools count pennies

As economy slides, Catholic schools count pennies

As economy slides, Catholic schools count penniesAs economic depression continues to plague the state, the education system, both public and private, searches for ways to mitigate the consequences.

It is glaringly obvious in the public school system, which analysts say are already seeing larger classes, fewer programs for arts and physical education, and fewer advanced courses.

Many private schools, meanwhile, are seeing their enrollment shrink as fewer parents can afford the cost of tuition.

Since tuition is the primary source of revenue for Catholic schools, shrinking enrollment affects everything else in the system.

Sandra Leatherwood, assistant to the superintendent of the Catholic schools office, said their principals are accustomed to utilizing everything they have to avoid cutting programs.

In July, each school submits an initial budget based on proposed enrollment. This is fluid because exact enrollment is unknown until the school year starts, parish subsidies aren’t finalized until enrollment is set, and grants could still be pending. Principals say the early budget process is a lot of educated guesswork.

“You have to look at every penny you spend and plan for what you can cut,” said Phyllis Brandis, who just retired as principal of St. Anthony in Florence.

She said all manner of items can be cut, including special area teachers whose jobs are absorbed by core curriculum teachers.

Principals are adamant that programs are not cut.

How schools are funded
Leatherwood said an average of 90 percent of a school’s revenue is from tuition, and this money doesn’t just cover the school. Each school also finances the diocesan schools office through a student assessment fee, so enrollment affects that budget.

The school office operates on about $400,000 a year, which covers all their expenses including salaries, Leatherwood said. She said they receive calls from schools in need, and she wishes they had the funding to help.  

Tuition alone isn’t enough to make ends meet, and school officials spend a good deal of time searching for creative ways to finance their needs.

Parishes help. Generally, churches pay a subsidy to their affiliated school for each parishioner who attends, and provide spiritual and community support.

Schools also sustain themselves through a variety of fundraisers, grants, alumni contributions and any other method they can imagine.

“It’s by hook and by crook and a whole lot of prayer,” Brandis said.

Pulling together
Chris Trott, principal of St. Peter in Beaufort, said they couldn’t make it without the parish, teachers, and volunteers who go beyond the norm to help them succeed.

The school operated on about $750,000 last year. In addition to tuition, they had a PTO-sponsored golf tournament, oyster roast, and other events.

“It helps to cover the bills, but we have to budget properly so we don’t have to cut,” Trott said.

For example, they can’t purchase new books for the whole school at once, so they buy for the middle school one year and the lower grades the next, he explained.

Teachers are asked to take a hard look at supplies; to use other items when possible and to share. They also employ creative scheduling so the school can offer new programs without hiring new teachers.

Trott said they will have classes in drama, computer, and creative writing this year by using the talents of their staff.

“I know a lot of schools have very good, very understanding folks working with us,” he said. “We receive lots of support from Father Tim [Tebalt], who makes sure the parishioners see that our children are very active in the parish.”

Still, cuts have to be made, and it’s always a hard decision.

St. Peter had to nix their water-day celebration with giant inflatables for a traditional field day, Trott said.

Schools also make the most of their teachers. Art or PE teachers are often a luxury, with many schools tapping their academic instructors to handle those classes, or relying on volunteers.

Brandis said they have become experts at bargain shopping, and have never had to cut programs such as art or music.

“Those things are so important — they’re just as important as English or math to make a well-rounded child,” she said.

One thing they have been working on at St. Anthony is the creation of an endowment fund, Brandis said.

Matt Dwyer, director of stewardship and development, strongly encouraged all schools and parishes to set up an endowment fund, and said his office would be happy to provide guidance.  

“It takes years to build up, but it can really be a big boost in sustaining the school,” he said.

Diocesan support
To that end, a small endowment has been set up through the Our Heritage/Our Hope Campaign to help parents with tuition assistance. Dwyer said the diocese, under Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, is looking for ways to help the schools in some capacity.

“Very limited funding comes from the diocese, but we’re trying to improve that,” he said.

The diocese does not financially support individual schools, Dwyer said, noting that the exceptions to this rule are a handful of primary schools that qualify for financial assistance.

He said the Bishop’s Stewardship Appeal raises about $110,000 each year to help those schools with the greatest need, which is determined by the education office. BSA funding does not support the Catholic schools office or the high schools, he said.