190523_SAINT

The Rev. Robert Butz addresses parishioners and parents at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Janesville during a Wednesday meeting about St. Mary School finances. Butz said the Madison Diocese has suspended a recommendation to move middle school students from St. Mary School to nearby St. John Vianney School by 2020. St. Mary has seven months to find ways to make its parochial school financially sustainable.

JANESVILLE

St. Mary School has gotten a reprieve—seven months to figure out how to right its financial ship if it wants to continue to operate as a pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school.

The Rev. Robert Butz, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, told about 115 people Wednesday night that the Madison Diocese has suspended a recommendation made public last week by a four-church panel to move all of St. Mary’s middle school students to nearby St. John Vianney School by fall 2020.

News of the reprieve drew a standing ovation from parish members and parents of St. Mary School students, some of whom had called the meeting to object to the recommendation.

But the rub—the reasons why the school and church faced a recommendation to downsize the school—was more sobering.

Butz and church finance committee member David Godek told the crowd that St. Mary needs to devise a plan by January 2020 to bring in $100,000 more in revenue per year. That’s if the church wants its school, which has operated for more than 100 years in downtown Janesville, to remain financially sustainable.

Godek said the school has been living mainly off interest income from an endowment earmarked for school funds, and the church has been paying a higher percentage of the costs than some private school finance analysts would recommend to prop up the school.

He said St. Mary School has burned through an average of about $70,000 in cash over the last nine years. If it doesn’t find more revenue somehow, the school could become unsustainable in three or four years.

“It is a big hole to get out of. You need to understand that. The finances are not good,” Butz said.

Enrollment has been stable for grade school students since 2012. But records show that church membership of young children ages 0 to 5 has steadily tapered off, part of a larger national trend in church membership.

Meanwhile, church attendance has fallen from about 1,400 parishioners a weekend in 1995 to about 455 a weekend in recent years.

For St. Mary, the downward trend leaves a dimmer future for the school’s prospects of cultivating new students.

Godek, who was not part of the panel that recommended the school move its middle school to St. John Vianney, told parents the school has to find some way to bolster enrollment.

He said it needs to draw about 60 or 70 more students per year than the 115 or so students it now has enrolled in preschool through eighth grade.

If enrollment doesn’t increase and the school doesn’t find new sources of revenue, it will take a $1,000-per-family tuition hike to patch up the school’s structural deficit, Godek said.

He said nobody’s suggesting such a tuition hike.

Butz said the church already has outlined possible “alternate solutions for survival” in a memo to the Madison Diocese, and he said the church will launch a committee to look for other “efficiencies.”

Some early ideas that have been submitted are:

  • St. Mary could continue as a pre-K-8 school, but second and third grade classes could be lumped together as a single grade level—a move that would eliminate one teacher.
  • The school already has approval to add extra sections of preschool and 4-year-old kindergarten, which could generate $20,000 extra a year and help cultivate a pipeline of students who can continue to attend the school.

Some parishioners suggested ideas for a capital campaign or fundraising. Member Patty Ceranski-Damrow suggested the school launch a sponsorship program that would allow church members to pay some or all of the tuition for member and nonmember students.

“I would sponsor a student myself,” she said. “It’s just an idea.”

Others urged the church to keep members more in the loop on finances and details of the school budget. One man said he never saw the results of a survey the church conducted two years ago. The survey was among the information that led the multichurch panel to recommend St. Mary middle school students move to St. John Vianney.

Dan Cunningham, a member and one of the organizers of Wednesday’s meeting, said he felt optimistic at least knowing the challenges.

Cunningham pointed out a photo he had of students who had drawn a message in chalk on the school playground off Prospect Avenue. He believes the church can find a way to boost its finances—even if it requires major, annual fundraising drives.

“I say, ‘Tell us. Give us a date. We’ll do it,’” he said. “We have to.”

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