For the past three years, we have conducted a thorough examination of Catholic education in the Diocese of Buffalo. A steering committee of 23 people has led this process. This effort grew to include more than 300 individuals, including representatives from the Department of Catholic Education, pastors, principals, members of the Board of Catholic Education, a national education consultant, community leaders and parents of children in Catholic schools.
At the conclusion of this process it was clear that we were facing a number of challenges: population loss, a distressed local economy and a decline in the number of practicing Catholics in the diocese, all of which contributed to the decision to close 14 local Catholic elementary schools at the end of the 2006-07 school year.
The numbers speak for themselves. Enrollment in Catholic elementary schools in the diocese has declined from 79,767 students in 1960 to 15,612 today. In the past 10 years alone, enrollment has fallen by 25 percent.
The average tuition for the Catholic elementary schools that will close is approximately $1,500 per pupil. The actual cost to educate one pupil in these schools for the year is more than $4,700. This disparity can often lead to a significant deficit before the school year begins. The deficit has to be made up and is done so by parish contributions and fundraising. In some cases, 83 cents of every dollar received in the weekend collection goes to support the school. This leaves little money to support other parish ministries. Many parishes do not have the resources to maintain and support a school.
In the past two years, the diocese has provided nearly $2 million in emergency assistance to Catholic elementary schools. Unfortunately, the resources are no longer available to provide this type of aid.
Today, there are more religious women over the age of 90 than there are under 50. This is a startling statistic. For years, these women taught in Catholic schools for little or no salary. Catholic schools today are staffed largely by lay people whose dedication is evident in the quality of our schools.
Rest assured, Catholic education in the Diocese of Buffalo will continue into the future. Children displaced as a result of the school closings will be welcomed to attend the Catholic school of their choice. Parents can find information about the transition on our Web site, www.wnycatholicschools.org.
Our children deserve to be taught in thriving, vibrant centers of Catholic life, and we will also maintain the high level of academic excellence for which our Catholic schools have long been known. Catholic schools stand for the Gospel, and Gospel values. They form the basis for everything we teach and the way we live our lives. We will work to preserve our Catholic identity and further strengthen our schools as centers of academic excellence as we move forward on this Journey in Faith and Grace.
Denise McKenzie is secretary of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Buffalo.