Holy Family Catholic Schools leaders are considering closing one or two elementary schools.
During a meeting Tuesday night, system officials discussed proposals to end elementary-school operations at Holy Ghost Elementary School, to end St. Anthony Elementary School’s English-based program and to end both next school year. In those situations, current students would be moved to other Holy Family schools.
Officials seek feedback on how the community served by the Catholic school system thinks they should proceed.
Chief Administrator Phillip Bormann said the moves are being considered due to low enrollment at the two schools and potential cost savings.
“What we’re moving toward is positioning Holy Family Catholic Schools to be delivering an excellent Catholic education for now and for generations to come,” Bormann said.
But system leaders said no final decisions have been made, and they want to give families and other people connected with the school system the chance to weigh in. The system’s Board of Education is expected to select a course of action in October.
“We’re saying, ‘Here’s facts; here’s the facilities; here’s their status of repair; here’s how many students we have; here’s the enrollment trend … and here are three potential options,” said Brian Kane, chairman of the Holy Family board. “If people want to discuss others, they should bring them up.”
Holy Ghost and St. Anthony Elementary schools are Holy Family’s two smallest campuses, with each serving fewer than 80 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. At least 200 students are enrolled at each of Holy Family’s other elementary-school programs: Resurrection and St. Columbkille elementary schools and in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Spanish Immersion Program.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is considered a program of St. Anthony Elementary, but the Spanish immersion program would not be affected by the current proposals.
Bormann said enrollment at Holy Ghost and in the English program at St. Anthony has declined to “unsustainable levels” over the past several years.
Holy Ghost Principal Todd Wessels said there are benefits to having a school with 75 students, such as the relationships staff form with the children. But there also are challenges, such as finding enough students for after-school activities.
“I don’t want to see (students) disrupted, but I also know when your population gets small, there’s financial and programmatic advantages to being part of a bigger school, a bigger school community,” he said.
Opportunities and drawbacks
Holy Family could save about $400,000 annually from the closure of one school and $800,000 if they end both elementary-school programs.
That money could be used to offer additional tuition assistance, increase staff salaries and benefits, and provide relief to the assessments that supporting parishes pay the system, officials said.
Such a move also could allow students to have more academic opportunities, Bormann said.
“We’ve got to be able to do those things to continue the excellence that I think we’re providing,” he said.
However, system officials acknowledge that the proposals are not without their drawbacks. Students would have to switch schools, and administrators worry that they could lose some families in the process.
“One of our No. 1 worries is whether or not our kids continue with us in the transition,” Bormann said.
There also could be staff reductions, though administrators hope to offer early-retirement incentives and to move teachers to new campuses if the board decides to end one or both of the programs.
“We want to retain as many, if not all, of our faculty and staff (as possible),” Bormann said.
System leaders believe there is enough space at the other campuses to accommodate students from Holy Ghost or St. Anthony. In many cases, it would be feasible for all of the students from either school to transition to another campus together.
“We want them to know that they can move as a community,” Bormann said.
Holy Family officials plan to continue using the buildings for both St. Anthony and Holy Ghost even if the board opts to end the elementary program at either. Holy Ghost would continue to be used as an early childhood center, and the St. Anthony building would serve early childhood and Our Lady of Guadalupe students.
Several of 50 attendees at Tuesday’s meeting wondered if students displaced by a closure would stay in the Holy Family system, particularly Holy Ghost pupils whose institution is the only remaining downtown campus.
“If we expect students to go up the hill to these (other) schools, I’m not sure it’s going to happen,” said Deacon Steve MacDonald, a former teacher of the former St. Mary/St. Patrick Catholic School. “Each time a school has shut down, the majority of the students have just gone to the public school.”
Danielle Oswald-Thole, a parent of two St. Anthony students, worried about the loss of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity to the system should a campus close.
“What happens to the kids at Holy Ghost impacts all of us. Just like if St. Anthony’s closes,” she said. “Making sure that we have a population that is representative of Dubuque … that we strive to include as Catholics, that’s important.”
Because most of the cost savings are realized from staff retirements, Bormann said, the district would save an estimated $600,000 annually if both schools closed but the system lost half of the students from the two campuses.
But even the loss of one student is a tragedy, he said.
“We don’t want to lose a single soul in our classrooms,” Bormann said. “This is going to be tragic no matter what, dollars aside.”
In the coming weeks, Holy Family officials will meet with families, faculty and staff, and with members of the St. Anthony and Holy Spirit parish communities to discuss the proposals.
Kane said system leaders seek to head into those conversations with open minds and will consider the feedback they receive in reaching a final decision that could go into effect for the 2020-2021 school year.
“I think the board is looking to entertain that feedback with a high degree of anticipation so we can do what we’re supposed to do, which is be the ones that oversee this Catholic education program,” he said.
Kane said Holy Family leaders want to make a decision that has the system’s long-term future in mind and that meets students’ needs.
“We hope that we get a lot of good input,” he said. “We hope that we’re wise when it comes to considering what input we get, and we pray — literally — that we’ll make good decisions for the future of Holy Family.”