Even though the Diocese of Buffalo may have to cut back its financial support for six area high schools in two more years, it won't force Niagara Catholic High School to close its doors.
"That won't happen," vowed Joseph F. Colosi, president of the school's Board of Trustees. "We intend to be there for years to come."
Colosi said recent news of the possible cutbacks was expected, and that the school and its leaders had already started to lay the groundwork for a stable future.
School officials have known for three years the diocese would probably have to retrench because of fiscal problems, he said, noting reports show that the governing body of the Catholic church in the region faces a $2.1 million deficit this year.
The situation may cause the diocese to change the way it supports six independent Western New York Catholic high schools: Niagara Catholic, Buffalo's Bishop Timon-Jude, Notre Dame in Batavia, St. Mary's in Lancaster, Archbishop Walsh in Olean and Cardinal O'Hara in the Town of Tonawanda.
That could result in a significant reduction in how much aid comes either to the schools or in direct financial assistance to students.
"We don't know what will happen or what the amount of assistance will be," Colosi said last week.
For many years, the diocese has been a big help to Niagara Catholic, providing it with a major source of revenue. This year it gave Niagara Catholic $400,000 to help run it's operation, which costs close to $2 million, School Principal Robert M. DiFrancesco said.
However, DiFrancesco said the amount the school receives from the diocese has been dropping by 5 percent annually, as planned, for the past three years. The fiscal condition of the diocese means such funding will continue to drop by that amount over each of the next two years until a new fiscal plan is implemented in 2009.
With this in mind, trustees and school officials have not been waiting idly for the hammer to fall.
To prepare for a worst-case scenario -- in which Niagara Catholic would receive no help -- DiFrancesco said school officials have been looking for new ways to raise enough money to cover the bills in the next decade for the only Catholic high school in Niagara County.
To make up for a potential $400,000 gap between revenues and expenses, DiFrancesco said, "We've been looking at how we can change the way we do things and come up with new strategies to keep this school solvent while continuing to offer a high-quality education to our children now and in the future."
>Alumni help sought
For example, Colosi said, "We are looking at new ways to get our alumni involved."
School leaders want alums to visit the school, be involved with it and support it.
"It's their school whether they went to St. Mary's High School, Bishop Duffy High School, Madonna High School or Niagara Catholic High School," Colosi said. "It's the same school."
Colosi is a 1964 graduate of Bishop Duffy High School. DiFrancesco is a 1965 Duffy graduate.
Alumni benefited from a Catholic education and Colosi said he feels sure, if approached, they will want to make sure other generations of children have that same opportunity.
About 75 percent of the 5,600 alumni from the city's Catholic high schools still live within 100 miles of Niagara Catholic, DiFrancesco said, so it's not unreasonable to believe the school can try to tap into that resource.
Kellyanne Stewart, the school's director fo admissions and recruitment, said, "We've known this has been coming and we have been planning and talking about different ways of doing things, like reaching out to our alumni and recruiting more students."
She also said the school is looking into alternative forms of fundraising.
Tuition, at $4,695 per student, accounts for about half the school's revenues, so more students would generate significantly more revenue. The school has 200 students this year.
Stewart and other school officials said the school can handle many more students, since the former Duffy building served as many as 600 boys or more a year during the 1960s.
The school also is no stranger to fundraising.
It raises close to $150,000 each year through three fundraisers: bingo, an annual raffle and and its basket auction, said Maureen M. Olson, the school's director of institutional advancement.
Olson said the school runs bingo about 49 Saturdays a year at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Volare Lodge, 56th Street and Kies Avenue. This year's raffle has already been held. The basket auction is set for Feb. 10 at Antonio's Restaurant, 77th Street and Niagara Falls Boulevard.
The auction is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with no admission charge, and will be followed by a $50-a-ticket dinner at 5 p.m. Anyone can purchase a ticket for the dinner and auction by contacting Niagara Catholic at 283-8771.
Meanwhile, cost-cutting steps are being taken.
"We've put in some very strict financial controls to keep down our expenditures without hurting programs," DiFrancesco said. "We've been meeting with a financial consultants to come up with ways of getting more alumni involved. We've been talking to other schools to find out what they do to raise money. We are taking some very aggressive marketing strategies to attract more students. Kellyanne's out their beating the bushes."
>'A last resort'
The school could raise money by increasing tuition, "but that's an option we want to avoid," the principal said. "That's only a last resort. We are committed to making Niagara Catholic as affordable as possible for parents. At $4,695 per child, Niagara Catholic's tuition is the second-most affordable Catholic high school in the diocese. Only Archbishop Walsh costs less."
DiFrancesco said the school is looking for more grants from government and foundations, and into landing corporate sponsorships.
"We have a public relations firm helping us with that," he said.
To bring things together, Colosi said the trustees will hold a retreat with school officials and supporters within the next two months to gather ideas and develop a strategic plan for the future.
"Our ultimate goal is to keep Niagara Catholic as financially solvent and as affordable for parents as possible," without resorting to raising tuition, DiFrancesco emphasized.
Colosi said all this doesn't mean the diocese will stop supporting the schools.
He said the diocese could just change the way it does things. Instead of giving direct subsidies to the school, it could choose to give financial aid to students for tuition, which still would serve to support the school.
Olson said the school has the people to help implement new programs, and is blessed with a very active parent organization which she said is always "willing to step up to the plate."
Meanwhile, trustees and the staff have taken actions to cut costs.
"We buy electricity and fuel gas through the diocese," DiFrancesco said, "so we save money that way. We've invested in new controls and operating equipment for our boilers to conserve energy. So far this year we have experienced an 18 percent savings in our heating costs compared to last year. But this has been a mild winter so far."
DiFrancesco said everything -- even the boilers -- are on timers so there is minimal heat in the school at night and on weekends. And lights automatically turn off when rooms are not is use.
No matter what happens with the diocese, Niagara Catholic Parents Association President Sharon Sciarrino said the people who support the school "will figure out a way to make things happen."
Sciarrino said she strongly believes everyone at the school feels it's important to have a Catholic high school in Niagara County that is available to all county students, even beyond Lockport, and will do what it takes to make sure Niagara Catholic remains open.
DiFrancesco said about 30 percent of the students are not Catholic, and that many come from the area's Lutheran elementary schools. He said some parents prefer to send their children to a private school.
"Prior to 10 years ago, whoever heard of a charter school? Now we have one," said Jackie Todd, a parent of Niagara Catholic students.
Todd said the diocese "should rethink what it's doing because poor communities like Niagara Falls and Niagara County need a Catholic high school -- and people can't afford any more tuition increases."
She said she believes if the diocese helps promote Niagara Catholic throughout the county, the school could overflow with students.
"I think the public schools are wonderful and give kids the best education possible," Todd said, "but for my children, I like them to have the religious part of education."
She also likes the idea of a child attending a smaller school, where they can get more individual attention.
"At Niagara Catholic every teacher knows every kid's name," she said. "It provides a family-oriented atmosphere, and that's the kind of thing my children needed. I think a lot of people feel that way and we need that available in Niagara County."
As for Niagara Catholic's future, diocesan assistance or not, Todd said, "We have a strong parent organization at the school and I know the parents will do what they need to do to keep this school going."
Niagara Catholic High School
Address - 520 66th St., Niagara Falls
Current enrollment - 200
Combined 1964 enrollment of Niagara Falls Catholic high schools - About 1,500
Current tuition - $4,168
Bishop Duffy tuition in 1960 - $60
2006-07 budget - About $2 million
Diocese of Buffalo 2006-07 subsidy - About $400,000
Administrators - Two
Teachers - 20, including a priest, a nun and an ordained deacon
Non-instructional staff - 11
Catholic high schools in Niagara Falls
1927 - St. Mary's High School, a co-ed facility, opens on the 200 block of Fourth Street, across from St. Mary of the Cataract Church.
1946 - Bishop Duffy High School, a school for boys, is founded in 1946; St. Mary's becomes a girls school. Duffy initially held classes on the third floor of Holy Trinity School on East Falls Street and was moved a year later to a World War II-era housing development called Pine Acres on what is now Niagara Falls Boulevard in the city's LaSalle section.
1955 - Bishop Duffy High School moves to a new building on 66th Street.
1959 - The Madonna High School building on 66th Street, a girls school, opens and replaces St. Mary's.
1975 - Niagara Catholic High School, a merger of Duffy and Madonna, opens at the Duffy building as a co-ed facility. 1995 - Niagara Catholic adds seventh- and eighth-grade classes.
2002 - St. Dominic Savio Middle School opens adjacent to Niagara Catholic in a building which once was the residence for priests and brothers who taught at Duffy and Niagara Catholic. This makes Niagara Catholic a traditional high school again.