A group of Janesville parents opposes a new recommendation to move St. Mary School’s middle-school grades to nearby St. John Vianney School.
The proposal is part of a list of recommendations that affect all four of Janesville’s Catholic churches. The recommendations were released to parishioners last week.
The parent group, which calls itself the Friends of St. Mary School, released a statement Tuesday saying the proposal would sound a death knell for the school.
“It would be the beginning of the end,” said Dan Cunningham, a member of the Friends group. “It’s kind of starting to happen already.”
The proposal, which would move St. Mary’s fifth through eighth grades to St. John Vianney by fall 2020, was among the suggestions made by a planning team that has been discussing the future of the city’s Catholic schools since August 2017.
The four Catholic churches—St. Mary’s, St. John Vianney, St. William and St. Patrick’s—are located less than two miles from one another. All of them operated schools until June 2018, when St. Patrick School closed.
The team of school principals, pastors and parishioners examined enrollment, finances, trends and surveys taken by school parents and parishioners, with the aim of strengthening the schools, according to a summary of the team’s work.
The recommendations were sent to Msgr. James Bartylla, who is serving as diocesan administrator until a new leader, Bishop Donald Hying, is installed in June.
The recommendation to move the middle school grades from one school to another came as a surprise, Cunningham said. People knew about the planning team, but no one expected such a decision without input from parents, he said.
Other Friends members agreed.
“The majority of the school board, parents of the school, and many parishioners heard about this proposal for the first time last week, despite the fact that the group has been meeting for two years,” Friends member Ryan Spies said in a statement. “We fear that this decision is being fast tracked.”
The group and others will meet Wednesday with Michael Lancaster, Diocese of Madison schools superintendent. Cunningham and others in the Friends group also want to meet with the new bishop.
Why does the grade configuration matter?
Janesville already has plenty of elementary school choices, Cunningham said.
“It’s the uniqueness of K to eight,” he said. “When you start there, you become a part of a family, and there’s that expectation that you’ll stay there until eighth grade, when you go to Craig or Parker.”
The possibility that St. Mary’s sixth through eighth grades will move has made parents look elsewhere, Cunningham said.
St. Mary has 109 students with 46 students in grades six to eight, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. However, it has only 14 students in grades four and five.
By comparison, St. John Vianney has 196 students with 71 students in grades six to eight and 44 students in grades four and five, according to the DPI.
St. William has 194 students with 46 students in grades six to eight and 34 students in grades four and five.
In February 2017, Janesville Catholics were surveyed about how to manage declining enrollment in the Catholic schools. At the time, total enrollment was 594. Total enrollment today is 499, according to the DPI.
In an previous interview with The Gazette, Lancaster said the problem was mostly demographics. Families are smaller, and both public and private schools are feeling the impact. In the 2019-20 school year, the Janesville School District expects to enroll an estimated 244 fewer students.
In spring 2018, St. Patrick’s Parish Council and finance committee decided to close St. Patrick School. At the time, the school had only 11 students in grades K-8 and 11 more in a 4-year-old kindergarten program that received state and federal funding.