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Parishes to share cost of schools Pastors informed of diocesan plans

All parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo will help pay for the growing costs of Catholic elementary schools under a new funding formula being developed by the diocese.

The diocese sent a letter this week to pastors explaining a plan to tax parishes that don't have schools, so that parishes with schools don't bear the entire burden of supporting Catholic education.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec has mentioned in recent weeks that a new funding formula for schools was in the offing.

On Friday, he confirmed that a formula proposal was sent to pastors.

The plan calls for parishes with an annual collection of less than $100,000 to pay 12 percent toward the "Elementary School Funding Plan." Parishes with $500,000 or more in yearly collection income would pay at a rate of 24 percent.

The fee would be in addition to regular parish assessments, Kmiec said.

"It will level the playing field much better," the bishop said Friday during a meeting with The News editorial board to discuss last week's announcement that 14 elementary schools will close in June.

About $4 million from the new fee will go toward regional schools; the diocese also plans to offer 1,500 scholarships of $1,000.

Kmiec declined to elaborate on the plan until pastors have had an opportunity to weigh in on it.

The proposal was the latest development in an effort to overhaul the diocese's Catholic education system, which has been beset by dramatic enrollment losses and spiraling costs.

The 14 schools slated to close had average debts of $224,160 and average enrollment declines of 41 percent over the past five years.

Many parishes were using more than half -- and some as much as 80 percent -- of their weekly collections toward their schools.

Some principals and pastors who manage schools have long lobbied for help, especially from wealthier parishes that do not have schools.

In many cases, parishes without schools have children who attend elementary schools in other parishes. The parishes sometimes pay a fee to the parish that has the school, but such arrangements are usually on a case-by-case basis.

The new funding plan should go a long way toward stabilizing Catholic education in Western New York, said Sister M. Christelle Sawicki, principal of Blessed Sacrament School in the Town of Tonawanda.

Blessed Sacrament is among the 14 schools slated to close in June. The plan is too late for her school, Sawicki said, but it would benefit Catholic education as a whole.

"There is a lot of wisdom in what's happening," she said. "It's holding every parish responsible. I think it's a major breakthrough for our diocese. I think we should have done this 10 to 15 years ago."

Pastors at some poorer parishes said they were worried that they wouldn't be able to afford any new tax, and parishioners at churches where schools are closing said the funding plan only upset them further.

"All of us parishioners are now going to be paying for schools we don't even have in our neighborhood," said Jody Strobele of Buffalo.

Strobele attends St. Agnes parish and sends her daughter to the school, which is scheduled to close in June.

"To me, the Catholic school reinforces the faith. I'm losing my faith," she said.

The funding formula is yet another sign of the end of an era of parochial schools.

In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a document calling on all Catholics to help address the critical financial questions facing schools.

"The future of Catholic school education depends on the entire Catholic community embracing wholeheartedly the concept of stewardship of time, talent and treasure, and translating stewardship into concrete action," the bishops wrote in "Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium."

Many other dioceses are moving toward more equitable funding formulas, said Robert F. Shea, a consultant on Catholic school issues.

"The bottom line is the bishops have been very clear that Catholic education is the responsibility of the whole church, not just the parish where there's a school," Shea said.


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