Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Five Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Lincoln are getting extra support in becoming more sustainable as they serve low-income students, thanks to funding from the Joy of the Gospel campaign and a special task force called by Bishop James Conley and organized by Msgr. John Perkinton, diocesan superintendent of schools.
The five schools – Lincoln’s Blessed Sacrament, Sacred Heart, St. Mary and St. Patrick, and Plattsmouth’s St. John the Baptist – were identified by the 2014 study by the Meitler consulting firm as operating in financial deficits, due in part to the demographics of their student bodies.
Since each of the schools offers a great many benefits to families in their parish and other minority parishes – including educating kids within a strong Catholic identity – the decision was made to take a positive, proactive approach in helping each school achieve sustainability and a balanced budget.
“My desire as the Bishop of Lincoln is to ensure that our schools are places where our students learn about the wonders of the world that God created, and also contemplate the truths he has revealed to us,” Bishop James Conley said. “I want our schools to remain faithful, vibrant and strong, and that is why I have called for this task force.”
“All of our parish schools,” said Msgr. Perkinton, “play an important part of the formation of our youth and are integral to their parish mission, their community, their work of evangelization, their work of catechesis, their work of forming Disciples in Christ.”
He said the Meitler study made a number of recommendations for these schools, including developing marketing plans to recruit more students, and taking a multifaceted approach to funding.
Funding collected from the Joy of the Gospel campaign was set aside to provide bridge grants to each of the schools so that they could continue operations for a five-year period, while working with their parishes and communities to develop plans to create a sustainable future. This gave the schools time to create and implement strategic plans with the help of a professional consultant, Eva Fujan, who was hired by the diocese to facilitate the process.
“Most [diocesan] schools are funded out of parish contributions, and tuition and fees charged to the families of students,” said Tracy Lockwood, diocesan chief financial officer. “These schools in particular have received grants that total $725,000 to $925,000 annually over the last three years.”
With the financial burden eased, the schools and parishes have been able to focus on strategic planning and balancing their budgets. Parishes hosted meetings that focused on listening and brainstorming sessions within their communities to develop plans for the future.
Ideas ranged from new school websites and social media strategies to attract new families, to improving communication between the school and parishioners, to seeking grants to help with educating low-income and minority students, to fresh fundraising ideas. Several of the schools educate Catholic students from ethnic parishes in Lincoln – including Cristo Rey, St. Andrew Dung Lac and Immaculate Heart of Mary – so have been working on joint efforts with those parishes, as well.
Now that the schools are nearing the halfway mark of their five-year effort, Bishop Conley requested a progress report and recommendations for the future. The next step was to create a task force that would review the strategic plans, the five-year budgets and the progress the schools are making toward sustainability.
The task force includes business people, pastors, a university professor and other dedicated supporters of Catholic education. Steve Burt of St. Peter Parish in Lincoln is chairing the task force, which also includes Msgr. Perkinton, Lockwood and Fujan as advisory members.
Steve Burt, as an alumnus of Cathedral and Pius X High schools and parent to four children who attended Catholic schools, has a long history with Catholic education. He taught at Grand Island Central Catholic before going to law school and later becoming a certified financial planner.
“With these five schools,” Burt said, “we want to do everything we can to evaluate their progress and see what we can do to help them not just be sustained, but to thrive.”
He is leading the committee with what he called a “30,000-foot view,” meaning that the task force is looking at every angle, every source of funding, and every possible solution before making recommendations.
“There is absolutely no agenda, and there is nothing that is not on the table,” Burt stated. “We don’t want anyone to be denied a Catholic education, including low-income and minority students… We are trying to look out at the next 20 years to create a vision and develop a pathway for the best way to do this.”
In addition to looking at the financial health of the five identified schools, the task force is also looking at ways the superintendent’s office can support all diocesan schools in terms of educational standards, human resources, marketing, fundraising and so on.
“We’re trying to take all the great work that Msgr. Perkinton has done and build on it,” Burt explained.
Task force members have reviewed an enormous amount of data and have met twice to date, resulting in very fruitful discussions. Burt said that they will use the information to craft recommendations to be presented to Bishop Conley.
Msgr. Perkinton said the recommendations will be, “fair, based on our love of Catholic schools, economic realities, an analysis of the efforts to date and the projected potential for the future of ability to offer Catholic education now and in the future.”
“The amount of effort and love and miracles that are being worked at these schools is tremendous,” Burt added. “There is no question about that. The question is, going forward and for the long term, what is our best method to have that continue?”