Jose Arias believes strongly in a Catholic education for his two sons, 9-year-old Julian and 4-year-old Jared. He likes the quality of the academics as
well as the Christian values imparted by teachers at Trinity Catholic School, in north central Spokane.
“It’s been a blessing,” Arias said.
Julian pays such close attention in class, his father said, that the boy can almost help teach some of the lessons.
“One day in class they were talking about treating each other with respect,” Arias said. “He told his teacher about a part in the Bible where people are too concerned with a speck of dust in their neighbor’s eye and don’t see the (log) in theirs.”
Without financial assistance, though, the Arias boys wouldn’t be at Trinity. The $5,000 tuition would be too expensive.
The Arias family is one of an increasing number of families in the Catholic Diocese of Spokane’s 17 schools and in diocesan schools across the nation that value a Catholic education but struggle to afford it.
Diocesan schools don’t receive taxpayer support; funding comes from tuition, fundraisers, parishes and endowments.
Consequently, some facilities are deteriorating, teachers’ pay is lagging behind their public-school counterparts and some schools are struggling to buy new curricula or updated technology.
With no solution in sight for Spokane’s Catholic school system, which extends to Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities, Bishop Blase Cupich of the Spokane Diocese and local Catholic leaders began talking.
The result was the creation of the Nazareth Guild. The nonprofit foundation will raise money to provide students with needed tuition dollars and to supplement school operations.
“We need an umbrella,” said Don Herak, retired business owner, philanthropist and one of the prime movers behind the Nazareth Guild. “Having Catholic schools that are failing … that just won’t do.”
‘Not an extra’
The number of Catholic schools has dwindled during the past decade. Church officials blame declining enrollment on the economy.
Between 2000 and 2012, there were 1,942 Catholic school closures and consolidations, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Enrollment declined by 621,583 students, or 23.4 percent, during the same period, with the greatest drop in the elementary schools. The changes have left Catholic schools across the United States with about 2 million students.
“We just have to look at the situation on the East Coast, and in one fell swoop one archdiocese announced 48 schools are going to close,” Cupich said. “If we don’t manage the future, the future is going to manage us.”
Enrollment in Spokane Diocese schools hasn’t fallen as dramatically, he said. In the past decade the number has dropped from 4,095 to 3,894 students. Cupich said he believes “Catholic schools are part of the mission of the church. It is part of what we do. It’s not an add-on. Not an extra.”
So when a group of people “stepped forward and said, ‘We want to help,’ I took advantage of that generosity.”
Tuition up to three-fourths of funding
Unlike Spokane-area public schools, the Catholic school system does not have a central budget; each school operates on an independent budget.
“Most schools are ministries of the parish, and each parish is a separate corporation,” said Duane Schafer, the diocese’s superintendent of schools. So generally, a principal manages the budget and a priest with the affiliated parish serves as the school’s supervisor, although some schools, such as Cataldo, have independent governing boards.
Most funding comes from tuition. At the elementary schools, tuition represents up to 75 percent of a school’s funding. Another 10 to 20 percent comes from the affiliated parish and 10 to 30 percent from fundraising, Schafer said. And some schools “have small endowments, and some receive a few dollars from the diocese,” he said. High schools tend to have larger endowments.
Certain schools have more money because of their location and programs.“We’ve been lucky with enrollment,” said Kerrie Rowland, principal at St. Aloysius, near Gonzaga University.
Since 2002, the school’s enrollment has climbed from 217 to 283. “We are one of the most centrally located schools in Spokane. We also run one of the largest day care centers in Spokane,” Rowland said.
Although Cataldo on Spokane’s South Hill has had recent financial challenges, Principal Stephanie Johnson considers her school to be fortunate.
“Some of the other schools have suffered financially because they don’t have the donors that we do,” she said.
Why are some schools failing?
Cupich mostly blames the economy for the problems plaguing Diocese of Spokane schools.
“If people have lost their jobs and have decided they can’t afford it, and if there’s no scholarship assistance, then they are going to pull out,” he said. “Therefore we need to look for ways in which low-income families can be part of our school system, because that is a way we do a service for society.”
Parishes don’t have much to spare for schools, and “fundraisers are pretty stagnant,” noted Johnson, the Cataldo principal.
That sets up a cycle of tuition increases and drops in enrollment.
Tuition at Spokane Diocese schools is between $5,000 and $5,500 for K-8 and around $10,000 for high school. Four years ago, K-8 tuition was about $4,200 to $4,600, while high school tuition was $8,600.
“Raising tuition is counter to our mission,” Johnson said. “Eventually, with the model we currently have, you are going to price yourself out of the market. And that’s not what we are about. We are a parochial school, and our mission is to make that education accessible to any family.”
Schafer noted that “very few families pay the actual per-pupil cost, so the vast majority are receiving tuition assistance.”
At Trinity, where the Arias children attend school, more than 90 percent of the students have some sort of scholarship, Principal Sandra Nokes said. “But even if they are paying $10 or $20 per month, that’s something. It’s a commitment. And that’s a lot for some people.”
Catholic leaders are uncertain whether the Spokane Diocese’s clergy sex abuse scandal and bankruptcy affected the schools, especially for the 20-to-25 percent of non-Catholic parents who choose parochial schools.
“I don’t have any data to support that,” Cupich said. “I’d be saddened” if it were the case, he added. “When you look at the actual facts, we’re talking about 4 percent of the clergy over 50 years. And the last actual reported abuse was 30 years ago.”
The main complaint Cupich hears is that priests don’t spend enough time at the schools.
Cupich acknowledges that moving forward with the Nazareth Guild may have been tougher if a settlement for the sex abuse victims were still up in the air.
Now, people will be less likely to question the need for donations, Cupich said.
Following a West Side model
The Nazareth Guild was modeled after the Seattle Diocese’s Fulcrum Foundation, which was created in 2002 for the same reason cited by Spokane’s Catholic leaders.
The Fulcrum Foundation has raised more than $60 million and helped 10,000 children in the past decade. A majority of its funds, 54 percent, goes to tuition assistance; 43 percent is distributed to needy schools and the remainder helps pay teachers and support programs.
Organizers here say it’s too soon to set a financial goal for the Nazareth Guild.
John Luger, a Nazareth Guild board member and active member of the Fulcrum Foundation, said such organizations work because the people involved are passionate about Catholic schools.
“First of all, (the Fulcrum Foundation) is an institution that is separate from the diocese in legal terms, but also it has a board that has recognizable names, leaders and respected people in the community,” Luger said. “In our attempt to bring that here, we are trying to do the same.”
Cupich, Schafer and Herak, a former owner of Acme Concrete and Building Materials and a Gonzaga trustee emeritus, are on the Nazareth Guild’s board. Additional members include Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities of Spokane; Garco Construction President Tim Welsh; Nada Stockton, wife of basketball star John Stockton and a mother of six; and Mike Patterson, a Seattle attorney.
Luger said the foundation “is a great call for Catholics to pay back the great benefits they’ve received from the education … a gift to return to our children and grandchildren.”
Catholic schools are “a contribution to the common good,” Cupich said. “Our graduates do well in life. We believe there should be a partnership with the broader community given the fact we are providing a fresh opportunity for many people to attend our schools and better their life.” Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh said he was thrilled to hear about the creation of the Nazareth Guild because local diocesan schools tend to feed students into his university.
“I believe that the Nazareth Guild represents a critical initiative, in that Catholic schools are and remain an important means by which the Church participates in a vital social project: the education of all youth within our community,” McCulloh said. “Without question, Catholic schools represent a faith-based educational option, but it is an option open to families of all faiths.
“If the kind of support that exists for Gonzaga from the broad community is any indication, I think the Nazareth Guild will be successful.”