Holy Cross Regional Catholic School

News & advance file photo

Parents of Catholic students in the Lynchburg area plan to ask Bishop Barry Knestout to reverse his decision to close Holy Cross Regional Catholic School, in the first step of a nascent movement to save the 140-year-old institution.

The Diocese of Richmond stunned Catholic families across the region when it abruptly announced Nov. 12 the school will close in the spring because of declining enrollment.

Since 2001, the student body has dwindled from 401 students to just 156 — a dramatic downturn which has put significant financial pressure on Holy Cross and ultimately made running the school “unsustainable,” according to a diocese spokesperson.

Now, a group of more than a dozen parents and alumni are working to convince the diocese to keep the school open beyond the end of the academic year.

“We’re hoping this isn’t a lost cause,” said Sky Pacot, a graduate of Holy Cross and the parent of a current student.

Last week, the group of local Holy Cross supporters penned a letter to the diocese requesting an in- person meeting with Knestout, according to Billy Wesley, the chair of the school’s advisory board who has helped lead the grassroots effort.

“I’d been told that we had his support and that he was going to back the school,” Wesley said of Knestout. “So, if he is going to close the doors on Catholic education here, I would like to hear it from him.”

According to Deborah Cox, the diocese spokesperson, Knestout has agreed to meet with the group, though a date has not yet been set.

Wesley said he intends to ask Knestout to keep the school open for “a couple of years” to fully implement a five-year strategic plan commissioned by the diocese last year.

The plan, which was written by the consulting firm Meitler and obtained by The News & Advance, urges the diocese and the local school administration to develop “comprehensive recruiting strategies” to boost enrollment, including an aggressive campaign to recruit children who worship at local parishes.

The Meitler report notes 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 argues, 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 states. “The population of school-aged children is more than adequate and projections indicate growth through 2022.”

In addition to recruitment efforts, the report advises the diocese to invest more than $1 million in renovating the school’s building and athletic facilities. According to the report, portions of its roof, all of its windows, several of its air conditioning units and science labs must be replaced or upgraded to retain and attract new students.

It is unclear which of these recommendations were carried out after the report was issued in April 2018. Building permits filed with the city since the start of last year show the school upgraded an entry canopy and installed three air conditioning units in the school gym.

Meitler also encouraged the school to increase its fundraising efforts, which declined alongside the drop in enrollment. According to the report, the school took in nearly $200,000 in 2015, but only $75,000 in 2018.

To increase giving, the report recommends creating a “well-focused” fundraising program to help offset losses. In its announcement last week, the diocese said Holy Cross saw annual operating losses from $95,000 to $360,000 in each of the past five fiscal years.

Wesley said parents plan to ask the diocese to take a larger role in executing Meitler’s recommendations. As part of their effort to change Knestout’s mind, they will argue carrying out the recommendations will boost enrollment and increase donations but only with the church’s full support.

“We’re hoping that now that alumni are becoming more engaged and now that we’re seeing the community support, we will be able to tap into those resources and raise the money that we need,” he said.

In the nearly two weeks since the diocese’s announcement, church officials have begun offering more details about the school’s closure.

On Tuesday, Kelly Lazzara, the superintendent of the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools, will meet with parents who are interested in sending their children to Catholic schools in Roanoke, Danville or Charlottesville.

Though some parents are open to the idea of busing their children to schools more than an hour away from Lynchburg, others have dismissed the suggestion as impractical.

The diocese also will hold a career transition workshop in February to help the Holy Cross faculty and staff obtain new jobs.

Church officials have made no indication of what they plan to do with the school building and its property. According to Cox, the diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools now is focused on finishing out the rest of the school year.

“We recognize that parents, students and staff are hurting,” Cox said. “And I think it’s important to note that the diocese is going to do what we can to provide as much support to them in the remaining months that we have with this academic year.”

Reach Richard Chumney at (434) 385-5547.

Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547. 

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