As Jack Grehan and an ever-growing group of St. Rita Catholic School parent volunteers see it, all they need is a forum with Monsignor James Tarantino, vicar for administration for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, to make a compelling case for delaying the shutdown of the school for at least one more year.
Whether they get that chance remains to be seen. But parents are rallying to raise enough money to match a $200,000 surprise gift from an anonymous donor intended to address the school’s looming budget deficit and stave off the closure ordered by the archdiocese last month.
“We’ve got every reason to believe that if they give us the opportunity, we can make a legitimate argument for the sustainability of the school,” said Grehan, a St. Rita's parent and a member of the school's advisory board. “This school is still viable. This is a short-term problem. We’ve got to get the archdiocese to realize that and work with us. I think they’ll see us.”
Grehan said that if parents can raise $400,000, half from the anonymous donor and the rest from a series of fundraising events (see below), including as many as 40 full-tuition scholarships via an adopt-a-student program, that will go a long way toward addressing the school’s projected $350,000 deficit for the current school year.
Rev. Ken Weare, the pastor of St. Rita Catholic Church who informed parents of the archdiocese’s decision in late February, said the campaign was evidence of the community's love for the school. But he expressed doubts about the possible success of the campaign to keep it open. In doing so, he cited what he called the school’s two systemic problems – dwindling enrollment and ever-increasing number of students receiving financial aid and not paying a full tuition – that are projected to continue beyond the 2013-2014 school year.
“(Fundraising) would be only short term and we still have this double problem into the future,” Weare said. “I've been trying to save the school for the past 9 years. But we’ve finally come to the point that has pushed us over the edge. The school will close – that's it – there's no alternative.”
Just two new students have applied for enrollment next year, Weare said, a huge dropoff from the norm at this time a year. That continues a trend that saw enrollment drop from 151 in 2009-2010 to just 133 this year. In addition, Weare said, more and more parents sought financial aid to pay the school’s $7,615 tuition, to the tune of a 95 percent increase in aid in the past five years.
As a result, a budget calling for 145 full tuition students only had 95 full tuition students. Weare also said the school has had to increase the number of lay teachers in recent years due to a declining pool of nuns to teach at the school. That translated into higher salary and benefit costs, which have risen to take up 86 percent of the school’s $1.3 million budget, Weare said.
The shutdown of the school would send its 25 teachers and staff looking for new jobs and its 133 students, or at least the portion of them who were set to return next year, looking for new schools.
Weare said he has a commitment from St. Raphael’s in San Rafael that the school could accommodate all of St. Rita’s students next year. He also said teachers are in the midst of finding jobs for the next school year.
“Within a short period of time, everybody will have a place to go,” Weare said. “But it is very sad.”
Grehan said he remains optimistic. He said the outpouring from the Ross Valley community has been phenomenal, and more potential donors and venues to host fundraisers are emerging. 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.
Grehan said the archdiocese’s decision has been a wake-up call to many in the community.
“I think people did not buy it,” Grehan said of talk of the school’s financial struggles in recent years. “They didn’t get it. They get it now.”
“And the archdiocese has to realize something – it’s March and they owe us another year because of the short notice,” he said. “They owe us, out of a degree of fairness, at least one more year.”
The 411: Donations to keep St. Rita School open may be made by mailing a check to St. Rita School, 102 Marinda Drive, Fairfax 94930.
Here's what else is happening on San Anselmo - Fairfax Patch: