By JEROD CLAPP
NEW ALBANY —
She came home from the meeting crying. The school her daughter and stepdaughter attend was about to close its doors and she had to find the words to tell them that they wouldn’t go back after May.
Rachel Smallwood was in the bleachers Thursday night when Indianapolis Archdiocese representatives announced that 2012-13 would be the last school year for St. Mary’s Catholic Academy.
She said the reaction of her children was much like that of the parents in gym — furious, confused and deeply saddened.
“It’s been a hard day for [the parents],” Smallwood said. “Our heads are just kind of in a fog right now, reeling from the abrupt news we received last night. Everybody is very upset, they’re very angry and they want to know how we can fix it.”
IN THE RED
By June, the school and parish are expected to accumulate a budget shortfall totaling $1.2 million. Compared to 2006, enrollment has dropped about 26 percent and 2010 enrollment came in at 99 students. This year, 139 students are enrolled.
Greg Otolski, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, said the size of the school limits what it is able to do in cutting budgets and generating revenue.
While St. Mary’s enrollment hovers around 120 students, he said other Catholic schools in the area maintain about 400 students in their halls.
He said in spite of annual fundraisers, more than half of the church’s collections supporting the school and the addition of a preschool, the academy’s losses are too much for the archdiocese to sustain.
“It really isn’t any different from how any school or business gets in debt,” Otolski said. “The revenues don’t cover the expenses. So when you look at the cost of salary and benefits for staff, maintenance, insurance, textbooks, everything that you would have to pay for the school, they don’t bring in enough money through tuition.”
Parish members pay $3,920 to send each child to the school per year, with nonparish members paying $5,090. Otolski said in order to keep the school running, an increase of thousands of dollars would be necessary, putting St. Mary’s rates out of line with other Catholic schools in the region and possibly out of parents’ budgets.
But Smallwood said she’s surprised that the school hasn’t gradually increased tuition in the last couple of years given the financial issues it faces.
“My daughter has gone to school since she was 3 and entered their preschool program,” Smallwood said. “I can only recall one tuition increase during that time. I feel like if there was such a huge financial crisis going on, there would have been a tuition increase from year to year to compensate for the deficit that the church and the school were incurring.”
She said even if the school had raised its tuition in the range of thousands of dollars, she and her husband would find a way to make up the difference. She also said she thought other parents would do the same.
“It’s a different kind of person that makes the sacrifice to send their children to Catholic school,” Smallwood said. “There are fantastic schools in the deanery, but my children deserve to go to St. Mary’s.”
QUIET ON THE FRONT
Tony Leonard has a second-grader and a fourth-grader attending St. Mary’s. He coaches soccer at the school and serves on its education commission. He said he’s been aware of the school’s and parish’s mounting debt, but he doesn’t feel like other parents received open communication about St. Mary’s financial woes.
“I would say probably 95 percent of the people had no idea of the financials,” Leonard said. “And they had no reason to be because it was never communicated to the parents of the school, nor were they ever invited to participate in that conversation.”
Leonard said some of that silence was perpetuated at the parent meeting Thursday night. As parents fired off questions and vented frustrations, he said the Rev. Henry Tully, the church’s administrator, stood up and left the discussion in the middle of the meeting.
“Where else in the Catholic community do you have your leadership basically abandon you? This is the time we need leadership the most,” Leonard said. “We’re asking questions during this whole thing, it got a little heated, then he basically got up, shook his head and left.
“That’s our problem, we’ve had no leadership. We’ve had no one communicate what the archdiocese was planning to do and no one work with us on a plan.”
Attempts were made to contact Tully for comment, but he did not return phone calls before press time.
Smallwood said parishioners may have had some idea about budget issues, but more communication should have occurred before officials issued their decision.
“I feel that it wasn’t very fair the way it was presented to us [Thursday] evening,” Smallwood said. “I know being involved in the school and the church as long as I have, there have always been some money issues and Father Tully brings that up in Mass sometimes on the weekend. But I feel like we weren’t given an opportunity to find a way to solve the issue.”
Otolski said the dwindling number of students signing up to attend was never hidden from parishioners, nor were the mounting money issues.
“Its not been a secret that things have been in a difficult situation there for quite a while,” Otolski said. “Everyone has known for years that the enrollment has been too low.”
He said the parish council and finance committee are elected to share that information with the church members, which he said makes him think the information has been common knowledge for a long time.
But Smallwood and Leonard also criticized the archdiocese’s top-down decision to close the school without getting input from it on the urgency of the situation.
Otolski said the decision was ultimately made at the parish level, although consultation with the archdiocese was required.
“The archdiocese said they can’t continue to pay for this debt that the parish is not able to repay,” Otolski said. “Through all projections, it doesn’t look like they’ll ever be able to repay it. The archdiocese said, ‘We’re not going to cover that debt anymore.’ I think after that, the parish was really looking at pretty limited options.”
ONE LAST TRY
Michael Hall is Smallwood’s father. He said his family has four decades of history with the school and he hates to see it close its doors forever. He said knowing the St. Mary family of parents, he thinks they’d do whatever they could to keep students in the academy’s classrooms.
“I think the parents that have kids there would have all come together,” Hall said. “The grandparents of the children who are there now would have come together as well. To not be given that opportunity or not be advised of what was going on beforehand is just very disappointing.”
But Hall and other grandparents might get that chance yet.
Leonard said he’s trying to start a grassroots campaign to raise whatever money they can to keep the school open. He said whatever efforts they need to make in communications and fundraising, parents aren’t going to just walk out on the school.
“We have a very strong Catholic community and the parents of these students are not just going to go away without fighting for what we believe in, what’s right,” Leonard said. “And this isn’t right.”
He said he plans to appeal the decision made by the archdiocese and do whatever it takes to raise the money the church owes, whether it needs to be done by seeking grants or knocking on doors in the neighborhood.
He also said the school has been improving some of its numbers. He said with enrollment increases in the last two of years, projections show it will continue to grow. He said he doesn’t know of any other business that shows growth and still closes.
“We have known that we’ve gone into debt, yes,” Leonard said. “But most of this debt had occurred prior to three years ago. So we have been slowly climbing out and becoming more self-sufficient and aware.”
He also said declining and aging membership in the church has also hurt the school and parish, but he thinks they can still solve the problems if they ramp up efforts to bring in more money.
Otolski said he’s not so optimistic.
“... I can’t imagine they can raise $1.2 million, and that would only cover things from May until June and that debt continues to grow and grow,” Otolski said. “This isn’t just erasing a one-time figure. When you look at their budgets in the long term, they have debt that continues to grow. You’ve got to raise that money and more every year.”
THE PLAN FOR NOW
Otolski said the displaced students and teachers will get help from the archdiocese in finding other places to go, but there are no promises on if they can put everyone in another school.
“Until we see where everybody might want to go, it’s going to be hard to say,” Otolski said. “Our goal is that every child who’s now enrolled at St. Mary’s will be able to attend another Catholic school in the deanery if they want to. We can’t guarantee that, though.”
A letter from Tully to parents at the school said parishioners will receive parish rates for any school they send their children to in the 2013-14 school year. In addition to that, students from kindergarten to seventh grade will get a one-time $1,000 scholarship for any New Albany Deanery school in the same school year.
But Otolski said that all depends on how much space schools have for those children. He said if one grade is filled up at another school, parents may have to look elsewhere. He also said the archdiocese plans to find each staff member a job, but that also depends on where and if openings are available.
“Our human resources department is going to meet with everybody and talk to them about other jobs within the archdiocese,” Otolski said. “It’s real hard to know what the staffing situation will be for certain in the other surrounding schools, but our goal is to work really hard at finding employment for everybody.”
He said the closure might not be all bad news for the parish, though. The archdiocese has committed to forgiving the $1.2 million debt. He said with the drag on finances to the school gone, the parish might strengthen and be able to expand other charitable operations.
But he said he understands that parents are unhappy with the news and the archdiocese wishes it could end differently.
“Obviously, everybody wanted to see the school work out,” Otolski said. “It’s terrible when any school closes. The teachers and the staff love those kids. The parents, I think, are heartbroken that things are going to change.”
SO YOU KNOW
• To see how you can contribute to a campaign to save St. Mary’s Catholic Academy, contact Tony Leonard at email@example.com or 502-548-8644.