Report recommends closing of 3 Burlco Catholic schools The Diocese of Trenton, which has had falling enrollment and revenues, was also advised to merge a fourth elementary into a regional school.

Posted: November 19, 2005

With enrollment and revenues declining, the Diocese of Trenton should close three Roman Catholic elementary schools in Burlington County and merge a fourth into a regional school, a task force has recommended.

In a sweeping report presented Thursday night, a special task force also recommended moves to boost enrollment, improve schools and shore up their finances.

Four elementary schools operating under capacity - All Saints in Burlington, Corpus Christi in Willingboro, St. Peter in Riverside and Holy Assumption in Roebling - should be replaced with a regional school, the report said.

The new school would be located in the Corpus Christi building.

While the recommendations drew an emotional response from parents, some school officials said the downsizing would allow the diocese to expand its academic program and offer more extracurricular activities.

The diocese has closed only two schools in the last 20 years, St. Joseph in Beverly in 2000 and St. Casimir in Riverside in 2004.

"It's a shock right now," All Saints principal Linda Weight said yesterday. But she added: "We owe it to our children to do more than just survive."

If approved by Bishop John Smith, the changes would take effect in the 2006-07 school year, and affect more than 4,400 students at a dozen elementary schools and Holy Cross, the only diocesan high school in the county.

"Our objective is to have a healthy network of Catholic schools," Judith A. Caviston, the diocesan secretary for Catholic education, said in a statement.

The recommendations stem from a 10-month review conducted by the diocese's Burlington County Task Force, which included representatives from each school. Meitler Consultants, of Hales Corner, Wis., also helped draft the report.

As part of a strategic plan, the diocese has been analyzing its school operations in Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean and Burlington Counties.

The Burlington County report, which was released to school leaders during a meeting at St. Paul Elementary in Burlington, painted a bleak picture in some areas.

Since 1999, enrollment at the 12 schools has dropped 12 percent, its lowest in two decades, the report said. In 2004-05, the schools operated at only 79 percent capacity with more than 900 empty seats.

With enrollment down and financially struggling parishes trying to fill the gap, the diocese supported its schools with a $1 million subsidy and $600,000 in tuition assistance.

According to the report, at least four schools are in dire financial straits: All Saints, Corpus Christi, Holy Assumption and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Maple Shade. "They cannot continue long-term without fundamental change."

If Our Lady of Perpetual Help cannot raise enrollment and balance its budget by 2007, the report said, that school should close, too.

"It was very clear that real changes had to be made," said Corpus Christi principal Mary Helen Ward. "We're dealing with true facts and figures."

The report had good news for schools where enrollment has increased. St. Mary School in Bordentown should consider expanding or building a new school, possibly at a new site, the report said.

Four others - St. Paul in Burlington, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Moorestown, St. Mary of the Lakes in Medford, and St. Joan of Arc in Marlton should add prekindergarten classes, the report said.

Without an influx of students, three schools should offer one class per grade level instead of the current two classes, according to the report. All schools should focus on marketing and recruiting, and they should also set aside funds for capital projects.

After input from the community and parishes, the task force is expected to present its final report to Smith in January.

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.

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