Declining enrollment, financial woes spur privatization talk for longtime Catholic school
FITCHBURG —Though enrollment has fallen drastically in the past decade, the Diocese of Worcester announced on July 11 it would keep St. Bernard’s Catholic High School open for another year while it transitions to a private Catholic school.
Last month, concerns over St. Bernard’s future prompted by financial losses and declining enrollment led the diocese to announce it wouldn’t be able to afford to subsidize the school if enrollment dropped below 100.
With enrollment currently exceeding that number, the school will remain open and funded by the diocese for another year.
The diocese is still working with a team to privatize the school in the school year starting in fall 2020. Privatization absolves the diocese of responsibility for the school’s finances and operations.
“I am pleased to hear that this longstanding and proud institution will remain part of the fabric of the City of Fitchburg,” said Mayor Stephen DiNatale.
“It is important that this Catholic school continues to explore avenues to ensure the future success of becoming an independent parochial high school.”
David Perda, diocesan superintendent of Catholics schools, said the shift would help right the ship at St. Bernard’s.
“It would allow for a new governance model to come in, which would allow the school to create a school board that is in charge of some of the policy,” he said.
Tuition, he said, was a policy that the school board would consider to drive enrollment numbers up.
In the last decade, enrollment has dropped from 434 students to 133 at the school.
Perda partially attributes the decline in enrollment to growing secularism in the region and the improved quality of public schools. He also said the school simply doesn’t have the ability to provide financial aid to every student who needs it.
School Principal Linda Anderson said their goal is to improve education and student experience within the school, which would help boost enrollment.
Anderson said another way to improve enrollment would be to improve the high school’s ties to local elementary and middle schools, and improved outreach in New Hampshire.
Both Perda and Anderson emphasized that this transition would not be possible without the support from the community and people with rich ties to the school.
Finances are also something the school has been weighing heavily.
“We will continue to operate the school and fund any deficits,” said Perda.
He estimated the cost to the diocese for the coming school year could run as high as $800,000 to $900,000.
Perda said some people think the price tag to keep the school open is too steep.
But he noted that St. Bernard’s is the only Catholic secondary school in the area, which increases the importance of the institution.
“In addition to the pledged support of the Diocese during this transformative year, we have initiated a steering committee, staffed by business and finance experts in our community and fueled by the insights of faculty, staff, and our many partners in Catholic education,” Anderson wrote in June, adding that the group would work to create an educational model that would be sustainable for years to come.
“A big part is also to have people who know and love the school to have some say in how things are operating. I think that’s exciting and kind of lends itself to a grassroots effort,” said Perda.
According to the school, members of the community have already started on committees to work on finances, structure, marketing, development, and recruitment in order to preserve the school.
“The energy and outpouring of support has been overwhelming,” said Brian Gardiner, parent and member of the Transition Team. “There is so much talent in the extended STB community and the collaboration already has been outstanding.”
Anderson said people are excited for the changes to come.
“People in this community are very hungry for the spark of change and I think that the privatization is providing some fuel for that spark,” she said.
“This question about our future has really forced us to get creative with how we address our school and making sure that it is its best.”
Daniel Monahan: firstname.lastname@example.org