By Jack Smith
Catholic Key Editor
Historic St. Mary’s High School in Independence will be closing its doors at the end of this school year. In a January 23 letter to St. Mary’s High School parents, Bishop Robert W. Finn cited declining enrollment and accumulating debt as reasons for the closure.
Enrollment at St. Mary’s has declined from 192 students in 2006-07 to 102 in the 2012-13 school year. Largely due to declining enrollment, the cost per pupil rose from $8,296 in 2008-09 to $13,023 in 2012-13, giving St. Mary’s the highest cost per pupil of any Catholic high school in the diocese.
In order to offset operating deficits, the Diocese has loaned St. Mary’s $883,340 since 2008-09, a number likely to increase to $933,090 by the end of this school year, according to Dan Peters, Superintendent of Catholic Schools. Operating deficits in recent years have resulted in staff reductions including, a development director and associate, a custodian, maintenance director and reduction to half-time of the athletic director and principal.
Anticipating a graduating class of 27 with an uncertain number of enrolling freshmen, Bishop Finn convened a committee of chancery staff to examine options for St. Mary’s in early November.
The committee examined the difficulties faced by St. Mary’s and presented this data to parents at a forum December 12. “The committee provided a scenario for the continuation of St. Mary’s, necessarily involving further staff reductions and the elimination of certain academic and extra-curricular opportunities,” Peters said. “Even with these cuts and an increase in tuition, an additional $120,000 in revenue enhancement would be needed to balance the budget for 2013-14.”
After the informational meeting, parents were sent a questionnaire asking their ideas for revenue enhancement at the school and whether or not they intended to enroll their children at St. Mary’s in the following school year. The parents’ ideas were discussed at another forum December 20.
Through the survey, seven families had indicated they would not be sending their children to St. Mary’s next year and another 13 were considering other options.
By mid-January, Peters said, “it had become clear that only seven students had committed to enroll as freshmen in 2013-14 and the possibility of continuing any viable educational program at St. Mary’s became impossible.”
In his letter to parents, Bishop Finn said that St. Mary’s students would be offered places at either St. Pius or Archbishop O’Hara high schools at a tuition rate equal to what they would have paid at St. Mary’s. “These schools will be eager to offer a warm welcome to St. Mary’s students,” Bishop Finn wrote.
Bishop Finn also said that the Diocese would continue to seek ways to honor the legacy of St. Mary’s at the new St. Michael the Archangel High School slated to open in Lees Summit in Fall 2015.
“I know that the closing of a school, particularly one as historic and integral to a community as St. Mary’s, is met with much grief and sorrow,” Bishop Finn wrote. “As we move forward on the new high school project, we remain committed to honor the legacy of St. Mary’s High School. And most importantly, we remain committed to offer the best possible Catholic education to the students who represent that legacy.”
St. Mary’s traces its history back to 1853, when Fr. Bernard Donnelly, St. Mary’s Parish first pastor, was given a plot of land in Independence with a 1 ½ story building on it. Fr. Donnelly used it as a school and taught the students himself because there was no money to hire a teacher. The school changed and grew over the years, eventually becoming a diocesan high school.
The Catholic Key will feature the history and contributions of St. Mary’s High School in a future edition.