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Examiner
  • St. Mary's High School to close in May

  • It’s official – a 160-year tradition of Catholic education in Independence and Eastern Jackson County will be ending.



    In a letter Wednesday from the Most Reverend Robert W. Finn, Bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, parents learned the rapidly declining enrollment at St. Mary’s has led to the decision to close the school in May.

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  • It’s official – a 160-year tradition of Catholic education in Independence and Eastern Jackson County will be ending.
    In a letter Wednesday from the Most Reverend Robert W. Finn, Bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, parents learned the rapidly declining enrollment at St. Mary’s has led to the decision to close the school in May.
    “... St. Mary’s enrollment for the following school year would fall well below any viable model of continuing, short of accruing significant new debt and eliminating many of the features and programs necessary to a quality high school experience,” said Finn, referring to conversations with community leaders and information gained from parent forums and a survey. “While 27 seniors will graduate this year, only seven students have committed to register as freshmen. Additionally, a number of current school families indicated through the parent survey their intention to register at another school next year.”
    The threat of closure has loomed over the heads of St. Mary’s families since last year when it was announced that both St. Mary’s and Archbishop O’Hara high schools would close and combine to form a new high school that is being constructed in Lee’s Summit. Construction on that facility has not been started.
    Further fuel was added with the rumors that St. Mary’s would close early after a meeting last spring with parents. It was revealed that the high school has been deficit spending for the last several years. In order to offset the deficit, the diocese has loaned St. Mary’s more than $880,000 since 2008. That number is expected to reach almost $1 million by the end of the school year. The declining enrollment was once again cited for the loss in revenue. Catholic Schools Superintendent Dan Peters said at the March 2012 meeting that St. Mary’s had the “largest deficit” of any of the Catholic schools in the diocese.
    To save money, St. Mary’s and O’Hara began operating under a joint administration with John O’Connor serving as principal for both high schools. Five teachers have also been lost over the last five years to save money as well as a development director, custodian, maintenance director and the reduction to half-time of the athletic director and principal. At the time Peters said there was no discussion to close the high school prematurely.
    However, that changed late last fall when a process began to evaluate the financial and enrollment issues at St. Mary’s. In a separate letter sent to priests and other Catholic church leaders, Peters outlined the process through which the decision was made to close the high school. This included creating a group of chancery staff to analyze St. Mary’s situation and hosting a parent forum in December.
    Some of the information presented at that forum was startling. Since the 2006-07 school year, enrollment has dropped from 192 to 102 students this school year. It was in November 2007 that the annexation of western Independence from the Kansas City School District was approved and one year later, the schools in western Independence made the transition to the Independence School District. Two other private schools closed in response to that transition: Englewood Christian Academy and St. Ann’s Catholic School.
    Page 2 of 2 - Two options were given to parents at this meeting – keep St. Mary’s open, but eliminate further positions as well as academic and extra-curricular programs or attend O’Hara or St. Pius X for the same tuition they would have had at St. Mary’s for the next two years.
    In a subsequent survey sent to parents, it was revealed that the estimated enrollment for the 2013-14 school year would drop to 95 and any hope to keep St. Mary’s open was lost.
    “The enrollment prospect for the 2013-14 school year became only more bleak during the course of this study and consequently, no viable solution for keeping St. Mary’s was forthcoming,” Peters said in the letter. “While the loss of an historic and beloved school such as St. Mary’s is a great sadness, the diocese remains committed to offering a quality Catholic education to St. Mary’s students at St. Pius or O’Hara.”
    With St. Mary’s closing, any remaining students will be able to attend O’Hara or St. Pius X at the same tuition rate that would have bee charged for the 2013-14 school year. In addition, the diocese is looking at the possibility of providing transportation to and from O’Hara and to make any other necessary adjustments for a successful transition for St. Mary’s students. A meeting with principals and representatives from both high schools will be scheduled in the coming weeks.
    “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,” Finn said. “As we move forward on the new high school project, we remain committed to honor the legacy of St. Mary’s High School.”
    Karen DeLuccie, parent of a current St. Mary’s student, said she is “extremely disheartened” with the decision to close the school.
    “We have listened to representations from the Bishop’s agents for years about the future of Catholic education in Eastern Jackson County. We were told that St. Mary’s would stay open and then merge with O’Hara at the site of the ‘new school’ that is allegedly going to be built in Lee’s Summit,” she said. “The representations from the Bishop’s office were obviously just words said to avert controversy. My mistake was in believing the words. St. Mary’s High School will celebrate 160 years of educating children this year. Not only is there no celebration, but we will close the school. How very sad for our children.”
     

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