By S.L. Hansen
LAWRENCE (SNR) - Last autumn, Bishop James D. Conley notified the faculty, staff and families of Sacred Heart School in Lawrence that he was investigating the viability of keeping the institution open. In February, he announced that school operations would be suspended at the end of the spring semester, May 20.
The decision did not come lightly.
“Between the public school and the Catholic school, there is only a small number of students in the area to begin with,” explained Father Thomas Bush, principal of the school and pastor of Sacred Heart Parish and its two mission parishes, St. Stephen (Lawrence) and Assumption (Deweese). “We began the year with seven students, and finished with five.”
Father Bush explained that about 15 years ago, there was talk about closing the local public school.
“In fear that shutting down the public school would hurt the town, most parents opted to send their kids to the public school over the Catholic school,” he said.
Year by year, it has become increasingly difficult for Sacred Heart School to remain open.
“Regardless of the number of students, teachers still have to be paid, utilities still have to be paid, we still have to pay for the fire alarms to be tested and have fire extinguishers recharged every year,” Father Bush reasoned. “The basic running of the school runs a minimum of $79,000 a year.”
Divided among only five students, that brings the cost of educating each pupil to around five times the average among all diocesan schools – without accounting for extra expenses.
“The building itself is very stout, but things like the roof and the boiler would also mean needing a substantial amount of dollars to keep the building open another 20 years,” admitted Father Bush.
The boiler passed inspection this year, but its “elbows” are not nearly as trustworthy. Parts are becoming difficult to find, and the repair estimate came in at the $80,000-$100,000 range.
“If anything unexpected happens, it becomes a great expense on a parish that consists primarily of aging and retired parishioners, and declining numbers,” Father Bush conceded.
Suspending operations for the time being is the most logical route to take.
“At the request of Bishop Conley, we do need to keep the electricity on in the building, maintain the heat in the winter in case there is a change of heart over losing our local Catholic school,” Father Bush said.
Another possibility – albeit a remote one at this time – is that the public school may close anyway. If so, parents would likely prefer to see Sacred Heart School reopened to reduce commuting time for their youngsters.
In the meantime, the two teachers at Sacred Heart School began applying for other jobs in February. One family has already moved to Hastings where their child can attend St. Michael School, and another family currently intends to homeschool, to maintain Catholic-centered education.
“I encouraged all of our remaining families to think about going to St. Michael’s or St. Cecilia’s, but I realize that a 30- or 40-minute drive each way on rural highways is a burden and safety risk, especially in the winter,” said Father Bush.
As for the school building itself, he intends to use the school for CCD, which has become a crucial means of instructing children in the Catholic Faith. On June 13, there will be an open house from 5 to 6 p.m., in conjuction with the school’s alumni banquet that evening.
Father Bush said this suspension of operations, “should remind everyone who still has a Catholic school to be grateful for it.”
He added, “A Catholic school may not have every amenity, but it is a place where, in addition to academics, the kids get to learn about and practice their Catholic faith.”
He encourages all Catholic parents to support their local Catholics schools in any way they can, including ensuring that the schools provide education through high school.