Innovation is needed to support Catholic schools, participants say

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Sunday, March 27, 2011

Innovation and shared experiences can help financially invigorate our Catholic school systems across the country, according to participants at a Financial Summit on Catholic Schools held in Chicago March 10-11 and sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association and its Chief Administrators of Catholic Education department.

Superintendents, chief financial officers and some bishops from Catholic school systems with enrollments of 20,000 students or more gathered at Loyola University’s Water Tower campus to be motivated by futurist Joel Barker and to listen to two panels on finance and new ideas led by their peers.

The summit was an invitationonly gathering but the group hopes to replicate it for smaller school systems around the country. Representatives from the largest school systems meet annually to share ideas and discuss pressing issues but this is the first time they held a summit around finances, said Dan Curtain, executive director of CACE.

“We see Catholic schools across the country facing financial issues,” Curtain said. There are lower school enrollments because parents have difficulty affording tuition in a tough economy and schools lack the financial resources to increase financial assistance.

“People who are in diocesan offices are looking for new creative ways to help principals with enrollment and different issues like finances,” he said, adding that since schools all across the country look to the larger systems for ideas and help with their issues it made sense to start the summit with them.

“We need to do everything we can to strengthen Catholic education and to promote it to the many students who want it,” said Curtain.

Shifting paradigms

During the first day of the summit, motivational speaker Joel Barker talked to the group about ways to generate innovation and how it can help improve finances in Catholic education.

The biggest route to innovation, he said, is through a paradigm shift. This changes the rules of how something is done and opens up opportunities for new ideas.

“The person most likely to help change your paradigm is someone who knows little of your paradigm,” Barker said.

He instructed the leaders on how to encourage idea sharing, especially among new staff members, and how to be open to it. Barker also gave examples of how innovation has been successful in other sectors.

Shared ideas

During the second day of the summit, the group heard from two panels of their peers about ways they are changing the financial landscape of their school systems.

In one panel, John Eriksen, superintendent of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Paterson, N.J., talked about how his diocese moved to a systematized approach to finances with one business office in each of the diocese’s three counties. These offices manage the temporal affairs of the schools on behalf of the parishes.

Eriksen said he sees the model of parish-supported elementary schools going away so it is important to find new ways to manage the schools.

“I believe in 10 years parishes won’t be able to support their schools,” he said.

The systematized approach hasn’t solved all of the diocese’s problems, but it is helping the school system understand the scope of issues and more of what is going on, he said.

Scott Jensen from the American Federation for Children spoke about momentum building for school choice and voucher legislation in states across the country. A school voucher bill passed the Illinois State Senate last year but failed in the House.

One size doesn ’t fit all

Overall, the summit showed that one plan or solution does not fit all dioceses but everyone has to choose the best model for their diocese and do it well, said Springfield Dominican Sister M. Paul McCaughey, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

During the summit Sister M. Paul also said there is a need for transparency in the schools.

“We need to see realistically what the schools are costing and how we can we support them,” she said, adding that schools’ vitality increases with transparency.

“Parents and donors know that their money is being used for what they said. They see the impact of their gift,” she said.

Sister M. Paul was on the organizing committee for the summit. Kevin Marzalik, the archdiocese’s chief financial officer attended the summit along with Bishop Francis Kane. Cardinal George celebrated a Mass for the group on the first evening of the summit.

Several of the new ideas shared at the summit are already being tested here in the Catholic schools such as early childhood centers and non-parish based schools.

Sister M. Paul said all of the educational leaders who attended the summit were saying the same thing: As parishes become more unable to financially support their schools, dioceses have to step in and support the schools and provide good Catholic education.