Two Catholic high schools in Hudson County under the auspices of the Archdiocese have been in financial straits for years, staving off closing for as long as possible. Saint Anthony High School in Jersey City announced in March that it will be closing in June, and Marist High School in Bayonne announced it will meet the same fate if it cannot raise $1.5 million by April 24.
The two schools are in very similar circumstances. Faced with declining enrollment, increased operating costs, and competition from free public schools and charter schools, Catholic schools can no longer afford to operate at a loss. It’s not a reflection of the quality of education private schools offer. Rather it’s the result of competition in an increasingly complex education landscape in this country.
Decline of enrollment, religion
Hall of Fame Basketball Coach and president of the school, Bob Hurley, said the $6,100 annual tuition at Saint Anthony did not even cover half the cost of educating each student, while Marist High School charges $10,000 in annual tuition and spends $13,500 to educate each student.
The Archdiocese told St. Anthony that it needed to raise $300,000 and increase the enrollment from 160 to 2,000 for next year, as well as require a $500 increase in tuition. This year, 11 students enrolled in April to be freshmen in September, bringing the total enrollment to 140.
The announcement was not unexpected. St. Anthony’s board of trustees announced last September that it needed to raise $10 to $20 million to establish an endowment to keep the school open, or face closing in June. The goal was to raise about $1.5 million a year above operating costs so that the school could continue operations.
Marist’s enrollment is dwindling even more – only 306 students enrolled at February’s deadline. Since 2008, the number of freshmen enrolled declined by half. “Fewer students results in less revenue, creating a deficit that has depleted the school’s reserves,” reads the school’s fundraising page on its website. “If wishes were horses, I’d have 400 kids in a heartbeat,” said Marist Head of School Alice Miesnik. “And that would solve the whole problem.”
Declining enrollment is a result of the root problem – affordability. Marist designates 20 percent of its endowment to tuition assistance, and it still is insufficient to attract enough enrollment. “We have over 500 applicants but who can afford it at the end of the day,” asked Miesnik. “Still, it’s not enough to make this affordable for many families.”
“I’m not saying support the Catholic schools. I’m saying let’s give parents a choice.” – Alice Miesnik
Lots of Catholics, but still…
Though the Roman Catholic population is growing in the United States, and in the world, attendance in Catholic institutions continues to decline. According to a 2015 Georgetown University study, there are 68.1 million Catholics in the U.S., up from 57.4 million in 1995.
Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Newark, Jim Goodness, said the Church is adjusting to these changes. “How vibrant is the community and is it growing,” Goodness asked. “If it’s not growing, then it’s not able to support itself financially anymore.” Five parishes and four Catholic elementary schools in Bayonne were able to support only two parishes and onehigh school last year. Now, Bayonne’s only Catholic high school is at risk of closing.
The rate of participation in baptisms, communion receptions, and funeral services has never been lower. Around 24 percent of U.S. adult Roman Catholics say they attend mass every week, down from 55 percent in 1965. Primary-school children in parish religious education is at 2.63 million, down from a peak of 3.59 million in 2000.
“It’s not so much of a phenomenon anymore, it’s a recognition,” Goodness said. “There just are not as many [religious] people around … because of the secularization of society.”
That newfound secularization has taken a hit on the Catholic feeder system in Hudson County. “There used to be a Catholic school in practically every neighborhood,” Miesnik said. “Now, since it all collapsed, they’re in the public-school system or their families are in the suburbs.”
Miesnik in the weeds
Miesnik sees big problems and big solutions in private education. “The real game changer is political,” said Miesnik, who supports a voucher system or an expanded tax credit to allow parents to “choose” where to send their children, theoretically creating competition among schools to attract the best students, and therefore better schools.
“I’m not saying support the Catholic schools,” she said. “I’m saying let’s give parents a choice. Right now, the charters are winning out because free is free, and they’re being funded by the government.”
If Marist were to close along with St. Anthony, Miesnik’s immediate concern would be where the roughly 200 students would go. “Where would these kids be, in the public school system? If I’m not mistaken they’re overcrowded and are going to be laying off teachers,”Miesnik said. “Are they prepared to take on these students?”
Marist High School has space to absorb Saint Anthony students. Miesnik said, “It would help a lot” for some of those students to transfer to Marist. She said the school would be more than happy to accommodate them without asking them to pay the difference for Marist’s higher tuition. “We are willing to accept them at the tuition they are paying,” she said. Students can come to Marist High School on its annual “Decision Night” on April 25, the day after the school’s deadline to raise $1.5 million, with transcripts. If the school is still afloat, it can tell students if they would be accepted on the spot.
Miesnik is an avid proponent of private schools and Catholic education, and sees public schools as inefficient bureaucracies that cost too much and deliver too little. She said private schools cancut costs with their small sizes and lack of high-paid administrators. “We are doing this for so much less,” she said, “and I’d like to say we’re doing it better.”
In financial terms, Marist High School actually seems to be less cost-efficient than Bayonne High School, whose cost-per-pupil is $11,736 according to the most recent budget, whereas Marist’s cost-per-pupil is around $13,500, according to Miesnik. Marist also pays its teachers less than Bayonne does, though Bayonne pays its teachers the least of all public school districts in Hudson County.
To support Catholic and private education in the future, Miesnik supports the current charitable tax deduction, which effectively allows taxpayers to allocate their tax dollars to charity. She would even like to see it expanded. “I think there’s a whole lot of money out there that is untapped,” she said.
Alice Miesnik has about another week to raise the $1.5 million required to keep Marist’s doors open, and she remains very hopeful and said her staff does, too. “I’m seeing a lot more parents at functions, a lot more support, and a lot more 50/50s being sold,” she said. “Everybody is stepping up in school. It’s been marvelous. I can’t say enough how proud I am of the students, the faculty, and the parents.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.