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Study Faults Catholic Schools' Approach to Finances

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A majority of the nation's Roman Catholic school systems have no long-range plans to combat the mounting financial difficulties that threaten their future, according to the preliminary findings of a recent study.

The study's findings also suggest that Catholic-school principals feel a sense of desperation and isolation. They believe, said William J. Amoriell, professor of education at Loyola College in Maryland and co-director of the study, that "if individual schools are going to make it, they will make it on their own" with little diocesan support.

The survey of Catholic-school officials suggests that more than 65 percent of the nation's Catholic school systems lack written long-range development plans.

"Each school is doing its own little thing to survive," Mr. Amoriell said. "Administrators are consumed with small fund-raising on a year-to-year, school-by-school, parish-by-parish basis."

This "nickel and dime" approach to finance will no longer work, he said.

In the first place, Mr. Amoriell said, Catholic schools must increase teacher salaries or face losing their staffs to the more lucrative public sector. A broadening teacher short-age in the public schools, he noted, has made them more willing to relax certification standards and hire teachers from the private sector. But this added pressure, he said, can only compound the Catholic schools' financial difficulties.

With a $13,000 grant from the Raskob Foundation, Mr. Amoriell and Joseph Procaccini, also a Loyola education professor, surveyed the nation's 197 Catholic-school superintendents on the financial status of their schools; 95 responded.

In addition, the two professors interviewed about 50 school superintendents, principals, and development officers as part of the study.

Although a final report will not be completed until December, a preliminary review of the study's findings suggests, said Mr. Amoriell, that "Catholic education is at a crossroads."

Financial problems are particularly acute, he said, at parochial schools, which are operated and supported by a single church parish. More than 85 percent of Catholic elementary schools and 13 percent of Catholic high schools are parish-supported.

Tuition-cost Gap

Parochial schools, Mr. Amoriell said, are finding it increasingly difficult to close the gap between tuition and per-pupil cost that has long characterized Catholic education. At the elementary level, for example, tuitions average between $600 and $700, but the per-pupil cost is currently around $1,200.

As the tuition-cost gap continues to grow, financially pressed parishes can no longer afford to make up the difference and consequently face hard choices, he said.

Simply raising tuitions to keep up with the spiraling costs would exclude large numbers of children from a Catholic education, those surveyed said. And the ensuing drop in enrollments would force many schools to close, they argued, with those remaining enrolling mainly the affluent.

Mr. Amoriell characterized the financial situation of Catholic elementary schools as "critical."

"What we do during the next two or three years will determine the health and future of Catholic education," he said, "particularly at the elementary level."

School officials surveyed considered Catholic secondary schools "a little better off," according to Mr. Amoriell. But most said they feared that unless something is done quickly to ease the money shortages, the high schools will "follow the elementary schools to the brink of closing."

Training Program Planned

The two Loyola professors are using the information obtained through the study to design "creative financing methods" for Catholic schools. They hope to start training superintendents in these methods next summer.

Mr. Amoriell said he and Mr. Procaccini advocate a more centralized system of fund-raising for Catholic schools, organized on the diocesan level.

Under such a system, full-time development officers could seek grants from corporations and foundations and develop long-range financing strategies.

But in many areas, parish supporters oppose such centralized funding plans, fearing that parish contributions will be used to support more needy schools when their own school lacks sufficient funding.

According to Sister Carleen J. Reck, executive director of the department of elementary schools for the National Catholic Educational Association, parish support has often declined under such a system because parishioners lost a sense of school ownership. "Everybody's school is nobody's school," she said.

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