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St. Bernardine School has undergone big changes in the past year as part of efforts to keep the school viable, according to school board members and the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The school board has been reorganized, and the school has placed itself under the umbrella of an archdiocese pilot program: the “Archdiocesan Initiative Model” (AIM), which transfers parish control to the Archdiocese Office of Catholic Schools for three years to help with marketing, budgeting and even personnel decisions. Also challenging the school is the upcoming retirement of three-year Principal Robert A. Maas, who before Christmas announced he was leaving this summer.

The school board has been restructured according to the archdiocese’s “Board of Specified Jurisdiction” model which limits the number of parents on the board to 25 percent and fills the board with community residents who bring professional expertise. Mary Turek, the St. Bernardine school board president, also serves as a school board member for Forest Park Public Schools, District 91. The non-parent members of the board help prevent the overextension of parent volunteers, said Turek. Former principal, Eleanor Kraft, serves on the finance committee. Kraft served from 1991-2004 and then came back for a one-year interim term. Other board members include Susan Kunkle, Joanne Leber, Sr. Colleen McNicholas, Maria Maxham, Richard Murphy, Bernadette Murphy-Witt, Daniel Powers, Mary Seavey and Theresa Steinbach, a former village council member.

Nineteen other Catholic schools are participating in the archdiocese’s AIM program. All are located within the city of Chicago, except for St. Bernardine and St. Christopher Parish School in Midlothian, said Ryan Blackburn, archdiocesan spokesman. St. Christopher Church suffered an embezzlement scandal in 2004, when a business manager was charged with stealing more than $100,000. The school and parish were left with $1 million in debt under the direction of pastor Rev. William E. Killeen, who went on to be accused of embezzlement at Infant Jesus of Prague Church in Flossmoor in Dec. 2007.

Through the AIM program, the archdiocese absorbs a “significant” portion of the school’s expenses for three years, formerly paid by the parish, said Kraft. In return, the archdiocese gives advice and provides resources for control of school budgets and marketing.

“The archdiocese will help us with fundraising,” Kraft added.

“Parishes may not be able to continue to contribute to the school and may be bleeding savings,” said Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey superintendent of Catholic Schools. In 2006, the parish contributed $230,000 to the school to make up the gap between tuition income and expenses.

“Our commitment is always to make sure the business side of a school is better attended to,” said Blackburn. “Our goal is for every school to have increasing enrollment and better financial stability and great programs. Of course, the Catholic faith is very present and a very animating force in the schools.”

Under the AIM program, school personnel also come under the archdiocese’s control. This will come into play in the search for a principal to replace Maas. As of October 2011, the local school board has no role in hiring, evaluating, terminating or renewing teachers, according to board minutes posted on the St. Bernardine website. Formerly, the board made recommendations, but the principal made personnel decisions. St. Bernardine pastor, Rev. George Velloorattil, will not hire the new principal as in the past but will weigh in on the search committee, said Kraft. The archdiocese will bring principal candidates to the board, said McCaughey.

While enrollment is up this year from 110 students in September to 118 in January, the school is still trying to rebuild from two different enrollment contractions. In 2006, enrollment fell from around 190 students to around 150. Last year enrollment fell from around 140 to 110. Part of this was due to an enforced collection of tuition, according to McCaughey. Kraft believes an 8 percent tuition increase this year may also have influenced the drop. Tuition for the 2011- 2012 school year is $4,050 for parishioners and $5,249 for non-parishioners.

St. Bernardine’s is weighing a “differentiated tuition” sliding scale program, based on all families submitting financial information to Private School Aid Service, (PSAS) an independent financial aid company, which recommends the amount of aid a family should receive, based on income. However, this has not been approved or even discussed by the finance committee, said Kraft.

Part of the school’s new focus is publicity for the program. “The AIM program is giving us excellent resources for marketing the school,” said Maxham, a parent and board member. “They’re telling us, we want to see you succeed and we want to give you resources to do that.” She added, “We’re tucked away, we’re small, and people forget we’re here.”

“We need to market ourselves outside Forest Park,” agreed Turek, the board president. The school’s location near I-290 makes it attractive to students from nearby suburbs, including Westchester, Maywood and further away in Darien and Midlothian, said Della De Sonia, the school’s secretary.

Kraft said the archdiocese is giving the school a boost, but in the end, St. Bernardine’s must make itself viable through fundraising and enrollment increases. “We have three years to build the enrollment and to prove that we can sustain ourselves. You’re always going to need parish help, but we have three years to show we’re improving and that we’ve done all the things they’ve asked us to do.”

McCaughey is optimistic about St. Bernardine’s. “They have a terrific board, filled with great people who are committed to the school. They have a strong action plan and their academics are strong.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...