FAQ gives insight into school closings

Thu, Apr 3rd 2014 02:00 pm

Following the Jan. 15, 2014, announcement that 10 Catholic elementary schools would close, the Department of Catholic Schools received a large number of telephone calls, letters and emails, with questions concerning the process. The following are answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Our school was fine. Why did schools have to close?

The revitalization plan is not about this year, next year or individual schools. The revitalization plan is about the future of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Buffalo. It is about considering and understanding the data: economic realities of Western New York, average number of children per household, number of women of child-bearing age, current and projected enrollment trends, parish data on sacraments and religious education programs, tuition collected, parish investment, and capacity and condition of facilities. It is about understanding and accepting that the diocese has too many school buildings that are under occupied and operating inefficiently. To be good stewards, we must invest in fewer buildings and stronger programs for the greater benefit of our children.

The Verdi report stated:

"Therefore, decisions must concentrate on aligning cost and resources to a more manageable network - smaller, more efficient and positioned to support a lower cost base with increased capacity and competitiveness. The broad geographic market coverage, enrollment area overlap and insufficient demographics and challenged revenue sources suggests right-sizing and reallocation of capital and rethinking of management approaches. All current inefficiencies must be challenged and fixed."

The timeframe was so short. Why were schools and parishes first given notice in September with decisions by January?

Yes, we agree the timeframe from September to January was short. However the process began in 2008 when the Diocesan Advisory Council hired Meitler Consultants Inc., a national organization familiar with diocesan structures, to study Catholic school education in the Diocese of Buffalo. Their recommendations included the closure of a number of schools. Following that study, Verdi & Associates researched the detailed demographic and fiscal situation in Western New York. In 2011, as a result of this research and analysis, the diocesan strategic plan, Faith in Tomorrow, was promulgated by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec. The plan clearly stated the need to reduce the number of school buildings by 2013-14. In March of 2013, Bishop Richard J. Malone heard from pastors that the time to act was now; parishes were struggling, a reduction in the number of school buildings was necessary. On Sept. 19, 2013, demographic, economic and financial data were distributed to pastors in a meeting with Bishop Malone. Pastors were asked to meet through the fall to formulate a plan to close schools. Final decisions had to be made by January 2014 in order to give parents adequate time to research options to enroll their children in another Catholic school.

We understand that pastors and principals met in vicariates or clusters. How was that input used?

Yes, pastors and principals met in the early fall of 2013, and submitted their plans to the committee and the bishop in December 2013. Those plans were carefully reviewed and the recommendations were followed where possible and feasible; they were the starting point for the reorganization. For example, one plan submitted indicated that of three schools under consideration, one or two should close and the diocese should pick the best location to remain open. The vicariate plan was just one piece of the larger diocesan puzzle. Addresses of all school families were mapped. The bishop and the committee had to consider where families lived, the population density and how the vicariate plans fit together geographically to provide an available Catholic school for families in the various regions of the diocese.

How were parents involved in the process?

First, parents voted with their feet. The decline in enrollment showed parents enrolled their children in some Catholic schools and others in public schools. Focus groups and surveys to parents conducted over the past several years by Cornerstone Marketing Research showed interest in strong academic programs, updated facilities and in some cases larger, more diverse classes. Dozens of presentations on Faith in Tomorrow and the revitalization plan were made across the diocese to parents, boards, vicariate leadership and lay organizations. Parents were encouraged to voice their opinions to pastors and principals. Between late September 2013 and January 2014, six revitalization communications were sent to pastors and principals for distribution to their parishioners and parents. Many pastors included this information in their parish bulletins. Additionally, a survey was designed with the help of the Federation of Home-School Associations. Approximately 2,200 people responded to questions covering everything from academic and extra-curricular programing to driving distances and tuition.

The diocese speaks about the data used. Can you tell us anything more about that?

The data researched and collected was substantial and impressive. The analysis of this data was startling; it painted a bleak future for our schools. Much of the school and parish data are self reported. Some of the reports used were:
U.S. Census Bureau data
New York State Basic Educational Data Systems (self reported)
Public School enrollment data
National Catholic Educational Association (self-reported)
Diocesan parish/school data (religious and financial) (self reported)
Maps of student addresses and their location relevant to schools
Maps demonstrating the predicted growth or decline of women of child- bearing age

Schools are saying they met all the criteria and yet they are still closing.

The consultants all agreed the diocese has too many school buildings with enrollments of 60% of capacity or less. The numerous criteria helped us to define the characteristics of an ideal school. No school that is being closed met all the criteria, particularly for enrollment, and many for financial benchmarks of both the school and the parish. The bigger picture considered finances and demographics over the entire diocese. A review of baptismal records and religious education numbers indicated areas of strength and weakness for potential for growth. The committee, and ultimately the bishop, had to consider strategic locations in terms of geography, enrollment potential and capacity of buildings for regional solutions.

Families are concerned that there are not enough places for their children; how do you respond?

There were about 1,000 children enrolled in the 10 schools that slated to close. There are 5,300 empty seats in the remaining open schools. Careful consideration was given to capacity to best ensure that current and future students have the opportunity to attend a Catholic school.

Initially, the thought was to have schools merge. What happened to that concept?

That was a term used early on.

However, after legal consultation, it became apparent that this was not possible. Parishes are the legal entities that own the schools, and because parishes were not merging, legally, schools could not be merged. Parents have the ultimate decision on where their children will attend school and we needed to give them that choice.

What was the hardest part of this process?

The decision to close 10 schools was not made quickly or easily; it was a thoughtful and painful process. The effect on faculty, staff, students and families weighed heavily on all involved. In the aftermath, it was disheartening to witness the disrespect shown by some to the bishop and to the experts who so freely volunteered hours of their time and expertise to devise a plan to keep Catholic schools available in Western New York. Time was taken to answer every phone call, email and letter, to explain the process used, the bigger picture considered and that the decisions were not made lightly.

Will the diocese benefit financially from the closure of parish schools?

The Diocese of Buffalo will not benefit financially from the closure of any parish school. A parish whose school closes will retain ownership of the school building as well as the contents (not funded by government programs) of the building which may be utilized for other parish ministries. These parishes will now be contributing to the Catholic Elementary School Funding Plan via the education assessment. The diocese does not benefit from the collection of the education assessment. These funds are invested in Catholic elementary school education through subsidy to regional and parish schools, benefiting students from a parish without a school who attend a neighboring Catholic elementary school. These parishes are encouraged to send their children to a Catholic school to get the full benefit from their assessment.

What is the future for our Catholic schools?

The diocese is committed to strengthening programs to continue to attract new students. With our new STREAM initiative, we are placing greater emphasis on science, technology, religion, engineering, the arts and math, while fully incorporating Catholic traditions and values throughout the curriculum. Boards of limited jurisdiction at each school will be charged with developing and monitoring finances, policies and administration to ensure the future stability of each school. A new Diocesan Federation of Home School Associations has been organized to increase communication and parental involvement in fundraising and advocacy.

Is there a place to find more detailed information?

Absolutely. The Meitler and Verdi Studies, the Strategic Plan, Faith in Tomorrow and the revitalization communications can all be found at the diocesan Catholic Education website.   

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