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Pittsburgh Diocese forges plan to keep its schools open

| Monday, Feb. 20, 2012

Catholic elementary schools in Mt. Washington and South Park will close at the end of this school year, but diocesan officials said they are working on a cost-sharing plan to allow other struggling schools to stay open.

While this will be the last school year for Bishop Leonard-St. Mary of the Mount Academy in Mt. Washington and St. Joan of Arc School in South Park, "we aren't anticipating any more closing," said the Rev. Kris Stubna, secretary of education for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"There are different models we're exploring. Schools could share teachers and principals, and a finance director. They might share expenses with staff, and that might reduce overall costs."

Consultants from the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame produced a report to help the diocese address its issues.

Stubna said all Catholic schools face a decline of school-age children in every county in the diocese. On top of that, the struggling economy makes it difficult for families to pay tuition. This year, the diocese educates nearly 22,000 children from preschool through 12th grade, and Stubna said the diocese operates the fourth largest school system in the state.

Financial problems plagued both the academy and St. Joan of Arc School.

Tuition at the academy would have to nearly double to about $7,000 a year to balance its budget. And that doesn't take into account its debt, which would surpass $421,000 by June.

The Rev. Michael Stumpf, pastor of St. Mary of the Mount parish, said the reaction to the closing of the academy ranged from "a gasp to people nodding their heads in understanding almost immediately. It's shocking news in some ways, even if you know it's coming."

With just 77 students, tuition at St. Joan of Arc would have risen by $1,500 to nearly $4,800 for the first child.

"It's very difficult to run a school for a 2012 child in a 1950s building," said the Rev. Phillip Pribonic, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish. "There's no gym, no labs."

Marc and Beth Brdar of South Park have four children from first to eighth grade in the school.

Marc Brdar said he was sad but not surprised to learn of the closing. He said he and his wife have been driving cars that are seven and nine years old, and forgoing vacations so their children can attend the school.

"Personally," he said, "I'm glad that they made that decision rather than to throw this $5,000 tuition at us."

Erin and Robert Vas of South Park have three children at St. Joan of Arc — Ryan, 10, Kylene, 8, and Adam, 5. Another of their children, Jacqueline, 14, went there.

"It's 11 years of volunteering, pouring blood, sweat and tears into the place," Erin Vas said. "It's just sad it shrunk to the point where there weren't enough of us to keep it open."

Both the Brdars and Vasses will send their children to other Catholic schools in the area. St. Louise de Marillac in Upper St. Clair and St. Thomas More in Bethel Park could serve the children from St. Joan's.

The closing of the academy is especially troublesome because of geography.

"It's really the only (Catholic) school left in that part of the city," Stubna said. The closest schools are St. Margaret's in Green Tree, Brookline Regional and St. Sylvester's in Brentwood.

As a result, the academy received the biggest subsidy from the diocese, $150,000 a year.

St. Mary of the Mount was the school where Cardinal Donald Wuerl received his early Catholic education. Wuerl contributed to the school and helped raise money for it at a gala in November at LeMont Restaurant.

He started the Cardinal Wuerl Angel Fund to provide tuition assistance. Once the school closes, the fund will give scholarships for students attending other Catholic schools.

St. Mary of the Mount School opened in 1910 and merged with Bishop Leonard in Mt. Oliver in fall 2006.

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