Bishop Frank J. Caggiano introduced plans for launching the Bishop’s Scholarship Fund that will substantially create a new financial model for diocesan assistance to schools before a gathering of almost 200 Catholic school principals, pastors and administrative staff at the Catholic Center on November 19.
“This is a significant, perhaps historic moment in the life of our schools,” he said, as he rolled out the plan to ensure the long-term sustainability of Catholic education in the diocese. “This is a time to look at structural reform to move forward.” The diocese educates more than 9,000 students in its 35 (five high schools, 29 elementary schools, and one center for early childhood excellence) Catholic schools in grades Pre-K-12 throughout Fairfield County.
The centerpiece of the bishop’s proposal to change school funding is the new scholarship fund, which is expected to raise $1.45 million in new scholarship aid that will be available to all families across the diocese. The funds will be used to attract new admissions and to retain existing students, especially in families that are financially challenged or have more than one child in school. Bishop Caggiano said the new Bishop’s Scholarship Fund will be a permanent fund designed to provide tuition assistance on an annual basis for students to attend our diocesan-sponsored schools.
“We’re beginning to price the middle class out of our schools. We need to create a vehicle that provides scholarship for poor, working and middle classes,” he said. “Even in the affluent suburbs, people are struggling to meet the cost of tuition, particularly if they have more than one child in our schools. We want these and all families to know that regardless of income, they can benefit from scholarship aid,” he said. He said the fund will award scholarships of varying amounts to as many students as possible who otherwise could not attend or remain enrolled in the diocesan-sponsored Catholic school of their choice because of financial need.
Scholarships will be renewable each year for as long as the student attends a diocesan elementary or high school and remains in good standing. The fund will disburse its scholarship grants beginning in the 2015-16 school year. The first year of the fund will be reserved for elementary school students. After that, high school students will also be able to apply for scholarship aid.
The Bishop’s Scholarships will be funded each year through a proposed new Scholarship Fund Dinner and an annual Christmas Concert for Youth, along with revenue from the Annual Catholic Appeal, the Faith in the Future Fund, and a redistribution of existing parish educational contributions. During the meeting, Patricia Zaccone, director of school finance, unveiled a new budgeting process and Bishop Caggiano asked all schools to host registration tours for students in February 23-27, in addition to the priority registration for current students during National Catholic Schools’ Week (January 25-31).
The bishop said the scholarship fund and new financial policies are meant to reverse declining enrollment in many of the diocesan elementary schools, and to address the current operating deficits of $2 million they owe to the diocese and negative effect of long-term debts. He said that enrollment in diocesan schools has decreased by 9.6 percent over the past five years, and 3.8 percent since last year. Most of the decline is in elementary school enrollment.
A recent study of demographic trends projected a decrease in overall school age population in Fairfield County in the future. In addition to the smaller pool of students, Catholic schools will compete with charter and pre-K public school offerings. Acknowledging that many Catholic schools face significant challenges, the bishop said the goal of the scholarship fund and revised policies is to create a “critical mass of resources” that will help schools achieve full enrollment. “If we get full enrollment, our schools will prosper,” he said.
The bishop explained that each parish outside of Bridgeport is now assessed 8 percent of its offertory collection to support Catholic Schools, whether or not a school is located on parish grounds. The Bridgeport parishes are assessed varying amounts and also receive financial support through an endowment created by the Catholic Academies Advisory Board. Total diocesan aid to schools provided by parish assessments is over $3 million and is a growing burden on many parishes.
The bishop said that many dioceses do not fund education through parish offertory collections and that the new funding plan should enable him to lower the assessment to 7.5 percent. On December 16, the diocesan College of Consultors (priest leaders) gave final approval for the creation of the fund. The bishop also announced the formation of a new Education Commission of the Diocese of Bridgeport to study the viability and vitality of schools, and to assist in developing a strategic plan for the schools and a comprehensive diocesan strategic plan for education.
The 10-member board, currently being formed, will include members of the general community with expertise in marketing, mission, admissions, finance and planning.