The emotional rollercoaster for the parents, students and teachers of the slated-for-closure St. Rita Catholic School in Fairfax might have been best encapsulated in a mere two minutes at St. Rita Church Wednesday night.
Rev. Ken Weare, the church’s pastor, informed the packed house that Maureen Huntington, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, was stuck in traffic and wouldn’t be showing up for a scheduled meeting on the fate of the school.
The groans were audible.
Weare then quickly followed with news that “it was decided today that we are to reconsider the decision to close the school,” a subtle utterance that incited raucous applause and a standing ovation.
Although Huntingdon and Monsignor James Tarantino, the archdiocese’s vicar for administration, weren’t able to make a meeting in which the St. Rita community expected to make their case to keep the school open despite financial troubles, the school’s board had already made that case in a hastily planned meeting earlier in the day.
Jack Grehan, a St. Rita's parent and a member of the school's advisory board, recounted the day’s events for the nearly 200 people gathered in the church.
“It was truly an incredible experience,” he said. “It was only eight hours ago that all this started.”
Grehan said Tarantino did most of the talking early, and eventually the board made its case: an from an anonymous donor that is already halfway to its goal; a viable financial plan for 2013-2014 school year and beyond; a strategy to create adopt-a-student scholarships and a campaign to boost the school’s dwindling enrollment.
“And then the Monsignor went off to talk to the Archbishop (Salvatore Cordileone), walked back in 15 minutes later, sat down, looked at us and said, ‘OK.’”
The applause thundered again, and mentions of several more parent volunteers drew cheers and standing ovations.
But Grehan and others made it clear that the campaign still has a mountain of work to do. It must erase its projected $300,000 deficit before the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, get families who have fallen behind on their tuition – to the collective tune of $100,000 – to pay up, and drive new enrollment to a level that generates significant revenue, Grehan said.
“We’ll work very quickly to get a budget that works,” he said. “We need to know that we’ve got a solid tuition base here to move forward. We need not only you all to sign up your children but also neighbors, friends. We want to make sure that the word is out that the doors are open – it’s up to us.”
Tarantino also called for more transparency from school officials on its finances, a goal applauded by St. Rita alums in the audience who said they had no idea the school had fallen on such hard times that closure was possible. Many called for an aggressive word of mouth campaign targeting both new students and potential donors.
Some parents expressed concern that the new financial model could call for a hike in the school’s $7,615 tuition. While Grehan declined to cite a figure, he said he didn’t think it would go as high as $9,000.
“We will come out with a tuition that is sensible,” he said.
Other attendees suggested combining classes to cut operating expenses. San Anselmo resident Joe Casalnuovo said that such a move could cut the school’s $1.3 operating budget in half, given that 86 percent of the school’s budget is comprised of salary and benefits for staff and teachers.
School officials stressed that despite the reprieve, things need to happen quickly, especially because the school’s 25 teachers have already started looking for new jobs and its 133 students, or at least the portion of them who were set to return next year, have been searching for new schools.
“Time is of the essence,” board member Chris Mothersill said. “The longer we take, the more different pieces are going to start to unravel.”
“Money is not everything but it’s a big part of it – the amount of money that has been raised so far is phenomenal and that was simply based on a hope and a dream," Grehan said. "The archdiocese wouldn’t have given us an inch if they didn’t think we could pull this off.”
Planned fundraising events include The Bulldog Hustle (April 19), with participants getting sponsored for the number of laps they do around St. Rita School, as well as a May 4 yard sale and a May 10 golf tourney at San Geronimo Golf Course.
The 411: Donations to the campaign for St. Rita School may be made by mailing a check to St. Rita School, 102 Marinda Drive, Fairfax 94930.
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