(Host) As schools in Vermont prepare for the beginning of classes, one long time elementary school will not open next week.
Sacred Heart School in Newport has been in operation for more than a century.
As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the state’s remaining Catholic schools are grappling with some of the same factors that led to the closing of Sacred Heart.
(Zind) When the Reverend Yvon Royer went to Sacred Heart in 1977, he was among 52 children in the graduating class.
Last year’s outgoing class had two students.
Royer, who is now on the Sacred Heart school board says there are several reasons the school won’t be opening next week – but at the core of the decision are two factors: Declining student enrollment and increasing costs.
Royer says like everyone else, families of Catholic school students have to pay the local and state taxes used to fund public schools.
The tuition for Catholic school is an added expense that an increasing number of families can’t afford.
(Royer) "I think it’s becoming financially more and more difficult, because tuition was going up and up. I think it was becoming less of a priority to church families."
(Zind) Public schools are also facing declining student enrollment, but consider these figures: A century ago, 36,000 Vermont schoolchildren went to Catholic schools in the state. Today that number is about 2,500: that’s a 93% decline.
For many years, towns without schools could tuition their students to parochial classes, but a 1959 court decision barred the use of public funds for church-run schools.
(Kelly) "I myself am a graduate of St. Michael’s school in Brattleboro and we had any number of students in our school that were from all the little towns around there."
(Zind) Sister Marie Kelly is Assistant Superintendent of Schools for the Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
Kelly says the cost of educating Catholic school students is lower than it is in public schools, largely because staff and teachers are paid less than their counterparts.
She says tuition costs are subsidized by the church, by parishes and from private donations. Parents pay roughly 60% of the actual cost of educating students at the state’s 13 elementary and two Catholic high schools.
(Kelly) "Every school is challenged to find the additional funds needed to continue to be able to keep the school in a position so that it can offer financial aid and yet meet all of its expenses."
(Zind) Kelly says she can’t single out any school that’s at the critical point Newport’s Sacred Heart was – but as enrollment continues to decline, Catholic schools will face tough choices about balancing expenses with the desire to keep tuition affordable and keep students from going elsewhere.
For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.