Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Parents, supporters pledge extra effort to keep St. Paschal School open

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the May 22, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Ever wonder what to do with those pesky free software CDs that come, unbidden, in the mail? St. Paschal School science students found a solution: add a balloon and voila, you have a working hovercraft. St. Paschal School is working harder than ever to keep the doors open. (IR photo from St. Paschal School)

St. Paschal School will open for the four Rs as usual next September. (That’s readin,’ writin,’ ‘rithmetic and religion.) That is, if the school and parish members, working “very hard” to make it happen, have their way.

There was some doubt about St. Paschal remaining open after school started last year, but like The Little Engine That Could, the school and parish joined together in an energetic and determined effort to make sure their school stayed open.

Three related factors converged with great impact on both school and parish.

• The first was enrollment. Spokane area schools, both public and private, are in a period of decreasing enrollments. The school’s student count dropped from 90 last year to 69 last September. One factor was that several families moved out of the school’s area, dropping the enrollment.

• The second impact is financial. Lower enrollment means less income. The school has weathered student decline before, but this time the stagnant economic climate of both Spokane and Washington State was an added factor. St. Paschal Parish is primarily made up of blue-collar workers and retired people, two groups not greatly cushioned against an economic downturn.

State budget cuts were also a factor in the school’s financial situation, especially in regard to funding for St. Paschal’s Educare program.

• Parish enrollment at large is also down. Higher parish expenses with a smaller financial support base translates into a smaller potential subsidy pool for the school. According to Don McKenzie, St. Paschal’s pastoral administrator, parish enrollment is down from 524 families to 365.

With these factors in mind, a group of concerned parishioners and school parents began meeting to examine the future of the school. A group process was established to help clarify the issues and develop ways to proceed. Meetings were held weekly all last fall, with as many as 60 people attending the large group sessions.

An important component of the process was prayer. At the end, people agreed the school should remain open, with some cost-cutting measures in place.

Not everyone shared that view, however, when it was taken back to the parish at large. One group thought it best to close the school; others wanted to keep it open. Each was sincere in their position and meetings did little except show that both sides were about equally divided. Finally in December an appeal was made to Bishop Skylstad, who agreed that the school would remain open.

Both the bishop and Father Hartin addressed the group division. As Lent began, Father Hartin issued a challenge to those who favored the school remaining open and those with the opposite view. He said the two groups needed to come together in their consideration of the issue. He challenged each to look at the perspective of the other group’s position. He reminded everyone that it’s not parishioners in one place and school parents in another; it’s “us” all together.

People were “not opposed because of ill will,” said Father Hartin, “but because they were honestly concerned with the financial cost. Parishioners are older; we don’t have many weddings here.”

Father Hartin’s challenge was “taken seriously,” he said, with the result that everyone “is honestly sriving to see what is best. They are dedicated to Catholic education and one of the fundamental things,” he said, “is how that’s carried out.”

Bishop Skylstad stressed unity in whatever actions the parish and school would take. In a letter dated March 6, the bishop wrote of the importance of Catholic education and its part as a long-time mission of the church. However, he said that Catholic identity comes first from the parish. He encouraged unity and collaboration “as we look to the future” and cautioned against allowing “lesser values get in the way of our unity and solidarity.”

Franciscan Sister Loretta Giampietri will retire at the end of this year, after 23-and-a-half years as the school’s principal. Richard Pelkie Jr. will be the new principal and will teach half-time in the seventh and eighth grades.

In talking about the school’s plight, Sister Loretta said,“We’ve always struggled with fluctuating enrollment. It was in a decline when I first came here.” In spite of the ups and downs, St. Paschal has always carried out its mission of Catholic education. “No child was ever turned away because they couldn’t pay,” Sister Loretta said. She praised the school, saying it’s a “unique place with a good spirit. And the commitment of the parents is really remarkable.”

That commitment has been shown another way, one in which Sister Loretta expressed great pride. School parents make up a good portion of the nearly 50 people who meet every two weeks. “If every school could get the commitment that we’ve’s refreshing and energizing. I’m very hopeful and edified...” she said.

The nearly 50 people make up three committees, finance, enrollment and publicity. They are guided by a list of “Viability Criteria,” written by administrator McKenzie and approved by Bishop Skylstad. The bishop agreed the school could continue another year with subsidy from the parish, but there needed to be some way, McKenzie said, to assure school staff and parents of “confidence in the school’s survivability.”

The criteria include items such as: the school will have no more than a $50,000 deficit in the 2003-2004 budget; the school needs to be on a solid financial footing by the beginning of the 2004 school year; enrollment will “have to increase and be tied to actual, collectable tuition.”

The committees have their work cut out, but their effort is paying off. Student enrollment for next fall is already over 70, and there is no question they will meet the goal of a minimum of 74 by fall. Several fund-raisers have already been held and an endowment is being set up to help the school become more financially stable. A sense of hope and accomplishment has replaced most of the division and there is more certainty about the school’s future.

Parishioner Dick Staniford recently retired. He’s an example of those deeply committed to the school He is a staunch advocate of St. Paschal School, with good reason: “I went to St. Paschal’s, my children went to St. Paschal’s, my mother was a volunteer librarian there and my wife taught there for 20 years.”

Staniford recalled that the school was built before the church, showing the parish’s long-term commitment to Catholic education. “We worshiped in the basement for quite a few years,” he said, before the church was built. “They are very much intertwined.”

His belief about Catholic education is clear: “”I’m for Christian education. If kids do not get into Christian schools, how will they learn about God?”

Long-time parishioner Kelly Bundy is on the publicity committee and, like Staniford, is a staunch supporter of Catholic schools. Her three children have all been students at St. Paschal.

She said the days when families paid for their own children to attend Catholic schools “may be a dying model.” On the other hand, she said, there are older people who might be willing to sponsor a child’s Catholic school education and that the finance committee was looking into the practicalities of the idea.

Bundy praised the school with its focus on families. “Because it’s so small, it’s very family oriented. We do a lot of mentoring and carpooling here,” she said.

Bundy is also keenly aware of the legacy of St. Paschal. “People have kept that legacy alive for 60 years,” she said. “How can we let it go without seeing what we can do?”

Pelkie, who will be principal, and Gail Goldman, who is president of the school’s advisory council, appreciate the new level of dedication. “They have a real sense of community and are working extremely hard for their school,” Pelkie said. “It will make my job easier ... in providing a holistic education (for each student) no matter what the social or economic background.”

Goldman said everyone is “pitching in to see how they can help. So many parents are so involved ... to keep the school open. We’re going to make it.”

In his March 6 letter, Bishop Skylstad expressed a “sense of hope knowing that the mission of Catholic education will continue.” That hope is being realized. Perhaps the biggest benefit is how the parish and school community have come together in a new spirit of unity.

McKenzie said the parish has a challenge ahead. It will need to examine its own role in support of school ministry. But, he said, “enthusiastic people have climbed on in a big way. There’s a lot of energy right now, and if anyone can make it work, they can.”

Sister Loretta agrees. “The people have to make it go,” she said. “And the parish will be better off for it.”

Students are currently being enrolled at St. Paschal School. For more information, call (509) 924-5090.

Inland Register archives

Home | Bishop | Communications | Parishes | Catholic Charities

© The Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved