Saginaw Area Catholic Schools to Consolidate; Bishop Pleads with Families to...

Tuesday, 18 March 2014 07:48

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Saginaw Area Catholic Schools to Consolidate; Bishop Pleads with Families to ‘Remain Together’

SAGINAW — Having met on March 7, 2014 with the Board of Trustees for the Saginaw Area Catholic Schools and after taking the necessary time for prayerful reflection, the Most Rev. Joseph R. Cistone, Bishop of Saginaw, has accepted and approved the board’s recommendation regarding the futures of St. Stephen (Saginaw) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Saginaw) elementary schools for the 2014-2015 academic year.

The board’s final recommendation was essentially the same as its original proposal and indicated the following directives: 1) St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary School building will become the site for the area’s elementary students PreK-8; 2) Tuition will remain unchanged for the next school year; and 3) Preschool opportunities will be provided.

The board members assured Bishop Cistone that they studied carefully the input given at the informational meeting held on February 13, 2014, the responses submitted in the survey conducted during the week of February 17-21 and the letters sent to Bishop Cistone. Recognizing the deep concerns expressed by the school parents as well as the various actions which could be taken in the future, no viable solution was given to address the immediate financial outlook if a consolidation were not to take place.

In re-presenting their original proposal to Bishop Cistone, the board noted that the parents responding to the survey overwhelmingly indicated that St. Thomas Aquinas School should be the site chosen. The board also noted that it considered the input from the survey regarding tuition and voted unanimously not to raise tuition for next year.

The board also indicated that day care was not desired by the vast majority of those responding to the survey; the Latchkey program will be examined for operation; and, preschool opportunities will be provided.

Bishop Cistone issued the following statement regarding his decision:

“I am grateful to the Saginaw Area Catholic Schools board members for their dedicated and thoughtful work, as well as the parents who took the time to complete the survey and share their observations and suggestions,” Bishop Cistone said. “Up to my final decision, I held open the possibility of maintaining both school sites, at least for another academic year. In the final analysis, I had to agree with the board’s recommendation that, considering the challenges and limitations which the school system currently faces, their proposal is a more sound and reasonable one. If the schools are to improve in the years ahead, they need to move forward from a position of strength, not weakness. Incurring a substantial debt for the next academic year would have weighed heavy on the system in its outlook for the subsequent year(s).

“I was pleased to see that the considerable majority of parents indicated their willingness to support the merger, whichever school was chosen. As would be expected, most of the written responses expressed the sentiments of parents to choose the school their children are currently enrolled in. However, the survey did indicate that parents believed St. Thomas Aquinas to be the better site. The board members assured me that they will take measures to reach out to those parents who may have reservations about enrolling their children next year.

“The survey is evidence that parents do not all view the situation through the same set of glasses. Some refuse to support any tuition increase while others believe that tuition could be increased or that every family should pay the same tuition. Maintaining two schools would have required a considerable increase in tuition. Yet, less than one-fourth of those responding to the survey were willing to support an increase between $250 and $500, and nearly 47 percent said they would not support any increase at all.

“Some people said we should cut staff. Others say that we should reach out to alumni and engage in a marketing strategy, both of which add costs and staff. Still others call for additional collections at the parish level at a time when parishes are expressing to me a concern regarding the number of collections which already exist. And, while people say they are ready to get involved and assist, the board’s experience has been that it is the same, limited number of parents who actually step forward to volunteer services in key areas.

“Reading the letters and responses to the survey, it is apparent that most people do not understand the complexity of either the diocesan budget or school budget. The School Board, the Diocese, and the parents all share responsibility for this lack of communication and understanding. I do believe it is important and helpful to share such information in order for our parents to be better informed. In addressing this need with the board, members indicated to me that during the past year, when parent meetings were held to discuss school finances, no more than 50 parents attended. Whatever the reason, we all share a responsibility for the present confusion. Unfortunately, better communication in the future would not change the facts and circumstances faced by the school system today.

“What is most distressing to me¸ is the fact that this current situation has revealed a competitive stance between the parents and Diocese, as well as between the parents themselves. Some parents do not believe that they and the Diocese share the same desire to provide strong, affordable and effective Catholic schools, while others actually question my own sincerity and deep commitment to Catholic education. Addressing this disconnect, I believe, is my biggest challenge and responsibility and I hope to be able to bridge whatever divide exists in this regard.

“The board is committed, in the near future, to take measures to create working committees of volunteers to address the various aspects of the system, e.g. marketing, finances, tuition, student enrollment, fund raisers, etc. I will also do my best to provide funds to assist those parents who, because of financial hardship, cannot meet the established tuition.

“Finally, I urge all our parents to stand behind this merger. Keep in mind that the children are much more flexible in adapting to such changes than we adults might be. In fact, they will take their lead from us. The decision not to increase tuition was meant to give everyone the ability to remain committed to the school system during these challenging times. If parents choose to send their children to other schools for ideological reasons, or because St. Thomas Aquinas School was the one chosen, or because they feel the Diocese and board let them down, I beg you to remain together. Give each of us an opportunity to pray together and work together in order to make available and to strengthen Catholic education for the foreseeable future.”

In February 2014, Saginaw Area Catholic Schools informed parents of the school board’s recommendation to consolidate St. Stephen and St. Thomas Aquinas, citing the critical need to take action in order to secure the financial stability of the entire school system. However, parents were first made aware of the challenges facing Saginaw Area Catholic Schools during three town hall meetings that took place last school year (2012-2013), and also in November of the current school year (2013-2014). The meetings that have taken place over the last two school years were intended to help parents better understand the downward enrollment trends and related financial struggles faced by the school system which includes St. Stephen (212), St. Thomas Aquinas (311) and Nouvel Catholic Central High School (323) in Saginaw.

“We acknowledge we currently have two beloved elementary schools couched in a rich heritage,” said Dr. Kimberly Prime, Saginaw Area Catholic Schools President. “It is sad to close this chapter in Saginaw; it deeply affects so many generations. Yet, we understand the need to move forward from a strong fiscal position.”

When St. Stephen and St. Thomas Aquinas consolidate for the 2014-2015 school year, it is anticipated that about 17 teacher positions will be eliminated. All teachers PreK-8 will have an opportunity to interview for the approximately 22 available positions. Providing teachers ample time to apply for alternative employment, should it become necessary, was given serious consideration in the decision making process. Support staff positions, such as aides, food service and maintenance, will be determined in May, pending enrollment numbers. Future uses of the St. Stephen school building will be determined by the parish community to which it belongs.

Effective immediately, efforts will begin to create a welcoming atmosphere and new school culture for the PreK-8 school site.

“The principals of St. Stephen and St. Thomas Aquinas will be spearheading a transition team with their parent advisory committees,” Dr. Prime said. “We also look forward to engaging the many parents who passionately expressed a willingness to volunteer and lend their expertise. Our sincere hope is that we all will work together as one for the sake of all of our Catholic school children.”

Furthermore, to strengthen communication, Bishop Cistone has requested that an informational session be planned for parents to address the interim strategy and next steps for Saginaw Area Catholic Schools. The date of this meeting will be forthcoming.

The Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Saginaw have a tradition of excellence in educating disciples of Christ, while providing rigorous academics, competitive athletics and accomplished arts programs.

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