In its May 17 issue, this newspaper reported that the decision had been made to keep the St. Bernardine School open for at least one more year.
For the task force which has been working on the question of whether or not to close the school since last September, the last nine months have been something of an emotional roller coaster ride.
“The precipitant of this whole thing,” recalled Fr. Pat Tucker, St. Bernardine’s pastor,” was last September when instead of the 193 kids we had enrolled in the previous year, we had only 153. Losing forty students over one summer is just catastrophic.”
It’s not that St. Bernardine was not familiar with declining enrollments. The student body has been declining in size for many years. Likewise St. Bernardine members are well aware of the closing of Catholic schools every year by the Archdiocese. What was a shock was the size of the drop”21 percent.
“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on,” said Jim Murray, one of eleven members of the task force recruited to respond to what was viewed as a crisis. “Why have lost so many?”
Murray explained that the drop in enrollment put the parish in a bind for two reasons. First, with less students there is less tuition coming in and less people to participate in fundraisers. Second, expenditures remained the same. Contracts had already been signed with teachers and staff, so there was no way to reduce costs in that area.
Once the initial shock of the crisis was overcome, the task force”composed of three school board members, four people from the parish council, Fr. Tucker, Principal Larry White and 2 finance committee members”began its work with a “can do” feeling.
“I think we started out optimistically,” Murray remembered. “We believed that with energy, hard work and dedication we could meet the challenge successfully.”
Everyone understood that the challenge was twofold: money and enrollment. To address the need for increased funding the task force put together what they called the “From the Heart” campaign in the fall and officially implemented it after Christmas. A list of 800 alumni of the school was compiled, and letters of appeal were sent to the 800 graduates as well as all members of the parish.
To increase enrollment, signs were erected on the church property and ads were taken out in many west suburban newspapers trying to raise awareness that the school existed and was a good place for children to learn and grow.
Although the strategy looked good on paper, Murray said that there were many disappointments. For example, a snowball formal dance was planned.
The idea was to have a high class affair with a full orchestra and fairly high priced tickets which would raise a lot of money for the school.
“If someone hadn’t written out a large check to cover the losses,” Murray said, “the event would not have made money even though it was well planned and many people worked hard on it.”
Another tactic, to increase enrollment in the pre-school program, also led to discouragement. The idea was to call all the parents on the baptismal list for the last three years and encourage them to enroll their young children.
“It just didn’t work,” Murray said. “We made the calls and got nowhere.”
As the task force began to grasp the enormity of the financial challenge, they concluded that budget cuts would have to be made. They projected a deficit of $230,000 for the 2005-2006 school year and realized that the deficit exceeded the parish’s cash reserves. When the announcement was made that none of the teachers’ aids would be rehired for next year, a “great sadness” settled onto the school staff.
“Those people work so hard and are paid so little,” Murray said. “It was like an institutional depression. Whereas before you would see staff members joking in the hall, now there was silence. People didn’t want to talk about it.”
Meanwhile, the stress was taking its toll on St. Bernardine’s principal. Larry White took on the job two years ago well aware of the challenges the school was facing.
“Emotionally, it’s been very difficult,” White admitted. “As a principal you have every facet of the school falling on your shoulders. And with the financial and enrollment situation here, I’ve had to work long hours. A principal already has to wear several hats, but this situation you have to wear three or four more. I had a constant concern about whether things were going to work out.”
White acknowledged that some people blamed him for the school’s problems. “It’s there and I know people can feel that way,” he said, “but, you know, whenever people put themselves in leadership positions, there’s going to be criticism. Whether it’s justified or not, I always say it comes with the territory.”
When White made the announcement to the faculty on May 11 that the school would remain open, he also informed them that he would be resigning at the end of this school year.
“It has been a very strenuous two years,” he explained. “I’m very much a supporter of Catholic education. I would like to see someone come in with the same energy I had when I arrived, someone with new ideas. I want this school to be successful.”
Murray said that he had decided to vote for closing the school prior to the meeting of the task force on May 10. That changed his mind were comments made by finance committee member Kevin Keating.
“Kevin talked about the finality of it. If we close the school, it will be closed forever. The finality really struck me. ‘We have to give it one more chance,’ I thought.”
Task force members other than Murray saw additional positive signs. The From the Heart Campaign had raised $60,000 in just three months. Fr. Tucker said that many members tried to take an historical perspective on the situation. He said that the school has weathered crises like this before, so there is reason to believe that it can do some again. He also noted that enrollments are down in District 91 and at St. John, and that this might be a temporary trend.
Tucker believes that the school can survive this crisis and regain some of its former stability. “I think we can get up to around 200 students in a few years,” he said.
“It will not happen over night and it will take a lot more hard core advertising. We are putting a lot of hope in our three and four year old program.”
Murray is less optimistic. “I think we can give it one more year,” he said. “If things don’t improve significantly next year then we can’t go on anymore.”
Although the results of the task force’s work have been somewhat disappointing to him, he has been extremely impressed with the process. “I really like the way this has been handled,” he said. “The process was good. We’ve given everyone a chance to say what they wanted to say. We’ve had weekly reports in the bulletin, the names of the task force members have been made known, and we held four town hall meetings.”
Although the future is uncertain for the school, parishioners at the Masses on May 14 responded to the announcement that the school will remain open for another year with standing ovations. What accounts for this measured optimism?
“We do have some trust that this is the Lord’s operation,” Tucker said with a smile. “If He wants it to succeed, it will.”