Fr. Kenneth Augustine, pastor of St. Luke Parish since 2007, said the gradual decline in enrollment over the years was a problem and the reduction in workforce meant to balance the low number of students wasn’t enough to keep the school running. The enrollment dropped from 239 students seven years ago in the K4 through eighth grade school to 62 students registered for the 2009-10 school year.
“We pray that with time, everyone will come to understand that this decision was extremely difficult and that everyone, throughout many years, have (sic) done their best to keep the school strong,” Fr. Augustine wrote in the March 25 letter that announced the news of the closing to St. Luke School families. “Despite all efforts, continued decreasing enrollment with a decreasing number of children from which to attract new students makes any other decision impractical.”
Therese Nitka, president of St. Luke home and school committee, whose son was two years from graduating and whose other son just finished third grade, wrote a letter to the Faith in Our Future leaders at St. Luke Parish after she heard about the closing.
“I’m president of Home and School, which raises funds for the betterment of the school. No one approached us about our funds. This is just one of the hundreds of discussions that didn’t take place,” Nitka said, explaining that she was one of many parents who gave their hearts and souls to the school and parish, but were not heard in the making of this decision.
Nitka, whose involvement included library parent, health room aide, member of the Christian formation committee, catechist and coordinator of Children’s Liturgy of the Word, attended the parish school committee meeting to present an idea for an after-school-care program meant to retain and recruit students. After her presentation at the beginning of the meeting, she “was asked to leave the meeting that decided the future of the school” because she hadn’t been involved in previous meetings about the topic they were going to discuss; Nitka would have asked them to consider different options had she known what they were going to discuss when she left.
Surprised at closing
Many parents knew the school was struggling, but they were surprised to learn of its closing in Fr. Augustine’s letter. Maureen Horning-Bopp, whose daughter would have entered eighth grade and whose son would have entered fourth, said that she and her husband had submitted their children’s registration fees, assured by principal Judi Kelley’s message in the March 2009 “St. Luke Lion Patches” newsletter that the school would be open next year.
A portion of the message from Kelley read, “Despite the many rumors out there, St. Luke School is open next year. There are many questions and concerns. We undoubtedly have challenges facing us, as do many other schools,” before encouraging parents to read the accompanying explanation from the parish school committee. In bold print, the parish school committee wrote, “St. Luke School has committed that our school will be open for the 2009-10 school year,” also explaining that money from the educational endowment fund was assisting with the parish subsidy of the school that was about 60 percent. In the end, the parish council and Fr. Augustine would make the final decision, but Kelley said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald that people were informed the school could potentially close this year.
“It’s the parish council’s decision to close, whether or not the school would be open, and their decision last year to keep it open was based on enrollment and the budget, so it’s all based on enrollment and finances,” Kelley said. “So, they did the best they could to keep it open as long as they could.”
Parents received a letter on March 11 with two models that were approved by the parish council and based on a 10 percent tuition increase. An enrollment of more than 100 students would result in 8.9 full-time equivalent teaching staff and a full-time principal; an enrollment of between 80 and 99 students would result in a 7.9 full-time equivalent teaching staff and a half-time principal. The letter asked parents to affirm their commitment by enrolling their children, because in order for the school to move forward with a model “we need as firm a count of our 2009-10 students as soon as possible – realizing that some numbers will continue to adjust with additions and subtractions over the coming months.”
Horning-Bopp heard about the closing at a Cub Scout meeting on March 25, the day before the letter arrived in the mail, because it had been announced to the teachers and filtered down to some of the parents.
“I was really taken back by that because that’s not what I was hearing,” Horning-Bopp said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “I obviously knew that the school was in trouble and we might be closing next year, but not this year. That was a big, big shock to me.”
Teachers willing to sacrifice
According to Horning-Bopp, “Some of the teachers were willing to take a pay cut, parents were willing to pay more tuition. We were not consulted at all in this decision.” She said. “We were already fund-raising as much as we could, volunteering as much as we could – there was a really good parent base at the school, as far as supporting the school and supporting their kids and the teachers.”
Knowing the school might close after the 2009-10 school year gave Horning-Bopp some consolation because at least her daughter would graduate, and then she would just have to make a decision for the remainder of her son’s grade school years. Instead, when she heard of the news, she said she began the scramble to find a school for her children. Horning-Bopp, who works for the Elmbrook Food Services Department, said her family will join St. Mary Visitation Parish, Elm Grove, where her children will attend the parish school.
While she knows her kids will adjust, Horning-Bopp said one of the biggest disappointments of losing St. Luke School is losing the outstanding group of teachers who were dedicated to the students and the school.
“They knew all the students and they were committed to stay there no matter what, and it was like they threw it all away,” she said. “That was the biggest travesty – that most of the students, like my son, won’t get the benefit of some of the older grade teachers that my daughter had.”
David Lodes, superintendent of the archdiocesan schools office, said that St. Luke School made a formal request to create a task force in February of 2008 and started to do an analysis at that time, tracking its student enrollment projections in terms of cost and revenue, programs offered, staffing, enrollment and the whole profile of the school, which led them to opening in the fall of 2008. By the time St. Luke went through the enrollment process the following March and April, the numbers had dropped significantly “to reach a point where the cost to running the school minus the revenue from tuition, and if there is any third party source, that the school is basically bankrupt,” he noted.
According to Kelley, the monthly task force meetings were open to parents and some were present at these meetings where viability issues were discussed and where it was mentioned that the school could close this year.
Poor communication between administration and the parents, not finances, was the main concern expressed by several parents like Michelle Holt, the mother of a recent graduate and two children entering sixth and fourth grades.
“When I found out about it, I was angry because of the way it was done,” Holt said. “…I don’t think that the administration listened to enough suggestions or made enough effort to try to look for alternatives to that.”
For Holt, the lack of communication, not the closing itself, was the main issue.
“I think people still would have been upset,” said Holt, who has been involved in the school fund-raisers, several committees and volunteered to do library, lunch and playground duty. “I think it still would have been difficult, but I think that the pastor and the principal could have done a lot more to guide us through the process and make it a little less painful.”
Mary Drosen, whose son will enter first grade and whose daughter will be a second-grade student at St. Mary Parish School, Waukesha, in the fall, said that she’s not angry about the news, just saddened and disappointed.
“We knew the school was running in the red, because we know you can’t run a school with less than 150 people — just from a financial perspective,” she said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald.
Drosen said that though the communication could have been better, the larger issue lies in seeking alternative solutions to keeping the school open like merging it with another, like the two Kenosha schools, Mt. Carmel and St. Therese. Kelley said a merger was considered and investigated, but Drosen said she was unaware.
“I don’t know if they ever talked about combining with other schools or it just was like, boom, one day your school’s closed,” said Drosen, who was a recess supervisor, participant in a mom’s Scripture group and member of the fall festival decorating committee. “I mean, I don’t know. That’s what’s so frustrating.”
When asked about the parents’ concern that there was a lack of communication, Lodes said Fr. Augustine held all the required meetings.
“He had open meetings, he had meetings with his finance committee, he had meetings – there were any number of meetings where Fr. Ken and his financial person had reviewed this information,” Lodes said. “…Fr. Ken did have the appropriate meetings.”
Lodes said that the archdiocese worked with the staff and faculty who are no longer employed to aid them in finding jobs, and gave parents the opportunity to meet with representatives of the neighboring schools, i.e., St. Mary’s Visitation, Elm Grove, St. John Vianney, Brookfield and Holy Apostles, New Berlin, to offer them a chance to ask questions and hopefully choose one for their children.
According to Horning-Bopp, who was one of the few families in attendance when representatives from neighboring schools visited, it was too little too late.
“The day after they announced the school closing, people were calling schools because you’re scrambling at that point – Catholic schools are filling up already,” she said, adding that she had already toured schools before the representatives visited two weeks after the announcement.
“Most people did everything on their own because they didn’t want the help from the school if they were offering it and didn’t believe in – Father had mentioned something about helping out with tuition assistance, getting us into the next school and things like that, but most people just didn’t trust so they didn’t even bother,” Horning-Bopp said.
Lodes said that whether families left St. Luke Parish because they were upset about the school closing or because it makes sense to be involved in the parish where their children will attend school, “our concern is that they stay inside the Catholic system in terms of school and the parish.”
Committed to lifelong faith formation
Fr. Augustine’s March 29 homily spoke to the closing in an attempt to alleviate some of the hurt that affected everyone involved.
“The quivering voices and teary eyes of the parish council as they spoke of their love of and passion for St. Luke School and Catholic formation is a testament to how heart-wrenching this decision was as they faced the reality of our times,” he had written in his homily. “On Wednesday, March 25, the archdiocesan superintendent of schools and Bishop (William P.) Callahan supported the difficult decision made by our parish council.”
Fr. Augustine reminded parishioners in the May 31 bulletin that the school’s legacy is ending, but faith in the future must not.
“We are committed to lifelong faith formation for all age groups in (the) parish,” Fr. Augustine wrote in response to an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald. “Now, more than ever.”
Lodes said that it’s unfortunate when the archdiocese has to work with schools that are in trouble and need to close, but when the financial problems, like those St. Luke was experiencing, become too much, keeping the school open isn’t solvent.
Despite the sadness that follows the closing of St. Luke Parish School, Horning-Bopp and her family, along with the other St. Luke families, are making the transition.
“I still believe in Catholic education,” she said. “I just feel like I’m being bounced around because of it.”
St. Luke School celebrated the legacy of the school with a time capsule for posterity, according to Kelley, and then ended the year with a talent show featuring students and faculty and a picnic.