Reverend Ken Weare, pastor at St. Rita’s in Fairfax, has been getting an earful this week from parents and parishioners.
“People are angry and they’re in a state of angst and abandonment,” Weare said. “They’re very unhappy and sorrowful and sad.”
Those emotions have been incited by Weare’s announcement this week that St. Rita’s School, the church’s 56-year-old K-8 Catholic school, is closing at the end of the current school year because of financial trouble. Weare informed parents of the decision Wednesday night, and a spokesman for Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at the Archdiocese of San Francisco confirmed the closure.
The shutdown of the school will 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. St. Rita’s is holding separate meetings on Monday for teachers and parents to meet prospective new schools in Marin, and Weare said the two closest schools, St. Raphael’s in San Rafael and St. Anselm’s in San Anselmo, both have openings for students.
Weare said dwindling enrollment in recent years, coupled with the rising costs of salaries and benefits and the increased demand for financial aid for students, created a clear picture that the school couldn’t survive financially. He said parish and archdiocese officials projected a $350,000 deficit in the 2013-2014 school year.
“There’s no indication that things would change for the better, so the conclusion was to close the school,” he said.
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 dip 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.
Parents are hoping to appeal the decision of the archdiocese and plan to gather at the school Sunday at 6 p.m. to discuss ways to do so.
"We believe that the school is the best that's been in years," said Jack Grehan, a St. Rita's parent and a member of the school's advisory board. "All of our friends are St. Rita's parents – there's a tremendous sense of family here. That's why there is such a sense of loss."
Grehan said the school's projected deficit is a new – and potential temporary – development.
"We didn't have a deficit as recently as last year," he said. "We're hoping now to get some temporary financial assistance from the archdiocese to close this deficit. We're hoping for a lifeline."
Beth Bailey-Gates, whose sons graduated from St. Rita’s in 2001 and 2005, said she had no idea that the school’s budget difficulties had become so dire.
“It’s just baffling to me why parents aren’t taking advantage of this jewel of school in the Ross Valley, especially with public schools in Ross Valley overflowing,” Bailey-Gates said.
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