The Diocese of Richmond will reevaluate the decision to close Holy Cross Regional Catholic School after a group of parents privately urged Bishop Barry Knestout to keep the 140-year-old institution open beyond next spring.
In a nearly two-hour meeting in Richmond on Thursday, a group of about a dozen parents and former students asked Knestout to approve plans to raise money to keep the school doors open and to boost enrollment through an aggressive marketing campaign.
“He didn’t give us a definite yes but he didn’t give us a definite no,” said Billy Wesley, the chair of the school’s advisory board and one of the leaders of the grassroots effort to save the school. “It’s not exactly the answer we were looking for but there is hope.”
Knestout agreed to review the parents’ proposals with various church officials in the coming days. He then will make a decision “early in the new year,” according to Deborah Cox, the diocese spokesperson.
“We recognize there are numerous factors that need to be considered regarding the long term viability of the school and at the same time for us to remain good stewards of the financial assets that are entrusted to our diocese,” Cox wrote in a statement. “However, it was important for Bishop Knestout to meet with the Holy Cross community to hear from them directly and listen to their ideas and their plans to keep the school open.”
The meeting, which also was attended by Holy Cross Principal Doug Washington and local pastors, was held a little more than a month after the diocese shocked parents by abruptly announcing the school would permanently close at the end of the academic year.
At the time of the announcement, church officials pointed to declining enrollment at the school as the reason behind the closure. Since 2001, the student body has dwindled from 401 students to just 156 — a dramatic downturn which has sapped tuition dollars.
Over the last five years, Holy Cross saw annual operating losses ranging from $95,000 to $360,000, according to Michael J. McGee, the diocese’s chief financial officer. Tuition for a 12th-grade student this year is $9,210.
Wesley said the group fighting to keep Holy Cross open outlined a plan to solicit donations from alumni, community members and charitable foundations. They also proposed developing an outreach effort to increase enrollment by offering tours of the school and allowing prospective students to shadow students during classes.
Much of the parents’ proposals stem from recommendations made by a consulting firm hired by the church to develop a five-year strategic plan for the school.
The report, which was written by the Wisconsin-based firm Meitler last year, noted that of the nearly 450 elementary-aged children who were enrolled in Sunday schools and other religious education programs at local parishes in 2017, just a quarter attended Holy Cross.
If its recruitment recommendations are carried out, the report argued, Holy Cross could see enrollment jump to 206 by 2021 and to 222 by 2022.
“There is a significant market for potential students,” the report stated. “The population of school-aged children is more than adequate and projections indicate growth through 2022.”
Over the course of last week’s meeting, Holy Cross supporters also asked Knestout to consider the impact closing the school will have on the region’s Catholic community. The closest Catholic schools are in cities more than an hour drive outside Lynchburg.
“We wanted to highlight that this is a ministry of the church and it’s something that helps people,” Wesley said. “It’s not just a place where we go to educate students, it’s a place where we make a significant difference in the life of a child. We wanted to make sure he understood the importance of the ministry in this town.”
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.