To keep some of its struggling schools open, the Diocese of Palm Beach is considering merging Catholic schools or asking them to share costs to keep expenses down, according to a church deacon and task force member studying the problem.
Last year the diocese, which has 14 elementary schools (for grades kindergarten-eight) and three high schools, formed a 15-member task force to find ways to keep schools suffering shrinking enrollment from closing.
In a down economy, school enrollment is also down by as much as one-third in some schools, said Martin Serraes, a deacon at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church and School in suburban West Palm Beach.
"When we speak to parents, they say it's the economy," Serraes said.
Annual tuition for elementary schools is about $5,000. For high schools, it's $10,000. Serraes said tuition has increased about $700 the past few years.
"Enrollment is down, but we can't help keep tuition from going up," Serraes said.
Operating a school of about 300 students, Serraes said, costs more than $1 million.
The biggest concern: There are five Catholic schools in central Palm Beach County that are within a few miles of each other, Serraes said.
Those schools are Holy Name of Jesus School on South Military Trail near West Palm Beach; Sacred Heart School in Lake Worth; St. Ann School in downtown West Palm Beach; St. Juliana School on Olive Avenue in West Palm Beach; and St. Luke School on Congress Avenue near Palm Springs.
All five are battling falling enrollment because many families are moving west, Serraes said.
School officials weren't available to comment. Holy Name of Jesus Principal Michael Smith referred all questions to the diocese. Schools Chancellor Lorraine Sabatella didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
As for whispers that Holy Name of Jesus School might close after the 2011-2012 school year, Smith said, "that's just a rumor to me."
Serraes insisted there have been no discussions about closing any school.
But, according to Claire Riley, a Lake Worth mother whose 10-year-old son attends Holy Name of Jesus, the Rev. Gavin Badway, its pastor, called an emergency meeting to tell parents the school was closing after the next school year.
"He said it was due to low enrollment," Riley said. "I understand enrollment is low, but why are we the only ones being told that we're closing?"
Badway couldn't be reached for comment, but Serraes said no decision has been made about the school's fate.
"Our goal is to keep all our schools open," Serraes said.
The diocese has asked pastors at the five struggling schools to come up with ways to cut costs or share resources, Serraes said.
They're looking at maintenance, staffing and electricity expenses, he said. There have also been discussions about bulk purchasing for such products as paper towels.
"These schools are operating like their own islands," Serraes said.
Another way to keep costs down would be to reduce the amount spent on marketing, Serraes said.
"We have schools spending ad dollars when they could be spending them together," Serraes said. "Why would I want to see three separate ads for Catholic schools for the Diocese of Palm Beach when we could run one ad which advertises diocesean schools?"
Serraes said the task force meets quarterly at diocese offices in Palm Beach Gardens and has been split into marketing, finance and facilities and resources subcommittees. He said the group will continue to meet as long as it's necessary.
"We're just scratching the surface on what we're trying to do," Serraes said.