Staff at Guardian Angels Catholic School, a 100-plus-year-old K-8 school in Chaska, are discussing whether to close the building in the midst of financial difficulty caused by debt, according to the business administrator, principal and priest.
“We have no savings,” said business administrator Lynn Arnal in a January town hall meeting. “We can’t afford anything.”
The school is in its last year of a three-year capital campaign to get out of debt, Father Tony VanderLoop said at the town hall.
Though he said staff is committed to operating the next school year without any changes, the school has over $580,000 in repair needs like replacing the front stairs.
Arnal said though the school’s financial situation is not an emergency at this time, it is a “bare minimum operation.”
Three years ago, the crisis began.
Since then, the church and school haven’t had a maintenance staff member, a full-time director of liturgy and music, and other important roles.
“Those were deep cuts,” she said, noting those staff reductions happened in the 2017-18 school year.
Then Guardian Angels stopped paying for teacher and priest benefits, she said, the archdiocese picking up the bill. But that money is borrowed, not granted.
So the parish took out a line of credit and in summer 2019, Arnal said the church and school had just $5 in its checking account. They added another $5,000 to its credit line and has since sat there unpaid, paying interest.
“Our buildings are one leg and the wages and school operations are another,” Arnal said. “And they fight against each other. They need cash. And when things break, I don’t have cash.”
Since 2015, the parish has poured $1.45 million into repairs, sometimes using operations money for daily maintenance needs as of late.
School revenue comes from tuition, grants and donations, and a subsidy. Average student tuition has consistently gone down from the 2015-16 school year, Arnal said, from $2,800 yearly per student to $1,100 last year.
The total cost to educate each student has also gone down, she said, from $8,600 five years ago to $7,700 last year. Staff did not explain why costs had gone down in the town hall or subsequent interviews with the newspaper.
If the school did close, Arnal said the parish would still need to pay for it. Specifically, over $150,000 for the 2021-22 school year in closing costs like scholarships, severance pay, and operations would ensue. After that, the school would still owe around $50,000 for the next couple of years.
“To do this now would allow us to do this with grace,” Arnal said, of the potential closure.
School Principal Dr. Chuck Briscoe, who began leading the school last year, said he was brought on board to bring up numbers — both financially and student-wise. In recent years, the school has added school improvements like SMART boards, more events and marketing, and a schoolwide cleanup.
At the meeting, he said Guardian Angels needs at least 100 enrolled students to be sustainable. More families would also need to pay full tuition, he said. But they can’t wait until that happens to make an open-or-close decision.
“I don’t think we can continue on a year-to-year basis. Somebody has to decide: Are we gonna be open for a long time or are we not?” Briscoe said.
He thanked the Guardian Angels community for being generous with donations in the past. A fundraiser has been set up by PTO Chair Brenda Buckley Jones. The website details efforts to raise $1 million to make improvements to the building.
“In order to keep the school open we would need support of Father VanderLoop to give us at least one to two years to try,” the fundraiser site states.
Arnal said most money would need to be raised in the next three to five years.
Father VanderLoop asked parents which outcome would impact their families the most: closing the school while still offering church services, or keeping both.
“What is going to have the most impact on … your growth in faith, your children’s growth in faith?” he asked.
VanderLoop encouraged people to speak their minds on the town hall input form, mailed to the community, and available on the parish’s website through January.
Staff expect to compile responses then report back with findings and decisions in early February, VanderLoop said. Then comes the discernment process, including sending a letter with recommendations to the archbishop.
“It has been a joy to be part of the G.A. community this school year,” said Principal Briscoe, in an email. Briscoe came out of retirement following 43 years in education, including 34 as a principal, to assist Guardian Angels.
“My hope is that Guardian Angels can continue to serve children for many more years,” Briscoe said.