East Dubuque School Seeks to Stay Open
February 2, 2017

EAST DUBUQUE.—St. Mary School here will remain open despite an announcement to close made during a meeting on Jan. 24.

Father Dean Smith, pastor of St. Mary Parish here and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Menominee, announced the decision to discontinue elementary education at St. Mary School as of May 26, the last day of classes this year.

About 100 people, including parents, teachers and some parishioners, attended the Jan. 24 meeting where he made the announcement.

Earlier that day, Father Smith shared the decision with school staff.

Following the announcement, parents expressed shock, anger, disappointment and pleaded for more time to save the school.

They listened to a presentation by Michael Kagan, superintendent of Catholic Schools. Data show declining enrollment, financial losses by the school and lack of school-age population in both JoDaviess County and  the Catholic parishes in East Dubuque and Menominee.

Also attending on behalf of the diocese was  Penny Wiegert, director of communication.

Father Smith, reading from a statement, said the decision to stop offering formal elementary education was based on four criteria used by the diocese to assess financial viability of Catholic schools. The criteria are:

– Enrollment,

– Student-teacher ratio,

– Average annual baptisms (which helps assess future enrollment), and

– Use of parish ordinary income.

Records show that enrollment at St. Mary School has declined steadily over the last six years despite having the lowest tuition in the diocese and efforts by previous pastors and principals to market the school and increase enrollment.

Enrollment has been under 100 students for the past 20 years, according to diocesan records.

This year 54 students are enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade. There are seven children in preschool.

Tuition is $1,900 for the first child and many families receive financial assistance.

The percentage of parish ordinary income used to support the school has exceeded the recommended maximum of 30 percent for more than 10 years and this year exceeds 60 percent.

Grim realities

“These are very grim realities,” Father Smith said in the announcement. “This parish has made many generous sacrifices for many years to fulfill its commitment to Catholic education through financially supporting St. Mary School.

“Unfortunately, the parish resources are being stretched to the point of deficit. And at present, we are delivering a high quality education to our students. However, our enrollment numbers and tight financial resources do not allow for any growth of programs and academic offerings let alone any extra-curricular or enrichment programming.

“To continue to allow the parish and school to slip further toward debt would be to ignore the needs that remain at the parish and would be a grave injustice to families, students and staff at both the school and parish.

“This would ultimately affect the educational quality and experience at St. Mary School,” he said.
Father Smith also announced that despite rumors and reports in the local news media, the St. Mary School building had not been sold to a local protestant school group.

After about two hours of questions and comments, Kagan and Wiegert, with the permission of Father Smith, agreed to take the feedback from the meeting back to the diocese, “without creating any false hope.”

Offer of help

After the meeting, Father Smith said he met with members of the Nativity BVM Parish who offered to discuss options and assistance to the East Dubuque school.

The following day, Father Smith discussed the situation  with diocesan officials. He said, based on the feedback from the meetings, another year would allow him to work with families at the school and people from both St. Mary and Nativity BVM parishes.

They will  work to set annual goals whose fulfillment would be the criteria needed to attempt to keep the school open and viable for the future, he said.

Those goals include:

– Raising $100,000 and having it on deposit by June 30, (many people at the Jan. 24 said the goal was feasible);

– Maintaining current levels of parish ordinary income;

– Meeting the parish target for the diocesan stewardship appeal;

– Increasing tuition for 2018-2019 school year;

– Beginning a concentrated and sustained effort to increase enrollment.

Father Smith told the parish in a letter that a meeting will be scheduled soon, to which “all parishioners of St. Mary and Nativity BVM parishes, plus school staff and families of St. Mary School will be invited. They will review parish and school finances and strategize on achieving the goals to keep the school operating.

“It is very clear there is a desire to continue Catholic elementary education here (at St. Mary). However, we must work together to continue that education, in a financially stable and educationally progressive manner,” Father Smith wrote.

“It is my prayer that by taking a step back, we can work together actively and thoughtfully toward that goal for the next year and quite possibly, beyond.”