MUKWONAGO – Due to low student enrollment, officials at St. James Catholic School announced last week that the school would close the end of the school year.
“The bottom line reason is that we don’t have enough children to keep going, and we’ve been declining in enrollment as other schools around us have all been doing as well,” said School Sister of Notre Dame Martha Meyer, principal at the kindergarten through eighth-grade school for the past three years. “We just don’t have enough children to keep going.”
According to Sr. Martha, St. James has 73 students enrolled for this year, but expected to lose too many to keep the school going.
“We asked parents to commit not financially right now but to just get a number (of students who would be returning), and we only got 40-some students that parents would even consider (having) come back next year. It really has gone down.”
Tuition for St. James School is $2,550 per student, and with more than six elementary schools in the Mukwonago public school district, parents who have trouble paying for Catholic education have plenty of options, said Sr. Martha.
According to Sr. Martha, this was neither a fast nor an easy decision to make, but working with the Milwaukee Archdiocese has made the process easier.
“The archdiocese, I think, has been marvelous to us in helping us in each step of the way,” she said.
Sue Nelson, interim superintendent of schools for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, responded through e-mail that while much was done to keep the school open, in the end it just wasn’t possible.
“The process has been thorough and everyone is to be commended on their efforts,” Nelson said. “Fr. Mick (Michael G. Savio) has personally dedicated a great deal of time and energy to finding a way to keep St. James School open. In the end, however, the reality of enrollment decline and financial constraints forced him to bring the recommendation to close the school to the parish council. With heavy hearts, the council supported his decision, which was later approved by Bishop Callahan.
“We are all saddened by the closing of a school that has served its parishioners so well for so long,” Nelson added. “The success of its graduates is a testament to everyone who has served in the school ministry of the parish. I know everyone at St. James Parish, as well as the surrounding parishes with schools, will do everything possible to support the families seeking another school for their children.”
One option to keeping St. James open was to combine it with St. Joseph School in Big Bend more than a year ago. After much communication with both parish schools, including listening sessions at both schools, they opted not to merge.
“We decided that the two (schools) would not merge together, and that each parish would go its own way next year,” Fr. Richard Robinson, pastor of St. Joseph, explained. “That meant that St. James did its own work in terms of coming up with what they wanted to do on their own for the following year.”
Much like the economic situation at St. James, St. Joseph School was also losing students. Its situation, however, is not as dire as at St. James, according to Fr. Robinson.
“St. James was much more critical,” he explained. “Their enrollment had dropped significantly and they were getting to the point where they had to dip into their financial reserves as they opened even for this year. Our situation has been stabilizing,” he said, adding that while student enrollment is only 121, he anticipates that the numbers will soon increase. Adding a K4 classroom is one of the ways in which the school has increased student enrollment.
“Many of our school parents live in the Muskego school district, so they don’t qualify for busing. A good number of those parents were very united in saying that if we were to be merging lower level grades here and upper level grades over (at St. James) for example, they would go to another school.”
Sr. Martha agreed that for many parents, the long commute for some families just wouldn’t be possible, especially with winter roads being as they are in Wisconsin.
“It wasn’t as though anybody backed out or that there was bad blood,” Fr. Robinson explained. “These meetings, we felt, were very constructive and there was good cooperation all the way along.”
“I don’t know how much you can ask people for their input, and then finally you have to get to a point where some decision has to be made, and that was put in the last of the two parish councils getting together,” Sr. Martha said. “Once St. Joe’s decided to stay and stand alone, then it was up to our parish council to look at where we’re at and what we can do, and it was decided to close the school.”
According to Sr. Martha, responses from parents and parishioners have been mixed.
“Well, there’s certainly a certain amount of sadness,” she said candidly. “The school has been around for a long time; it’s a great school. Emotions and feelings are all over the place, you know. Some are very realistic, and others still hope that (the school) can stay open. The decision is made and we are closing.”
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki concurred that closing the school was a hard but necessary decision to make.
“During these difficult financial times, it is extremely important to work together for the good of the whole parish community,” he said in a written statement. “It is this confidence and trust in the Lord which will allow us to grow even in these critical moments.”