One contributor at a time, committee aims to keep doors open at South Jersey Catholic H.S.

The Catholic Diocese of Camden celebrated Sacred Heart High School’s 85th year by notifying the administration that the 2011-2012 year would be the Vineland school’s last.

An impromptu rally following the announcement ignited a firestorm of support for the school, which convinced the diocese to reverse its decision – with a few stipulations. The most critical is that the school must raise $300,000 by May 1 to cover the shortfall for the current school year.

So far, nearly two thirds of the $300,000 has been raised, said Fran Reilly, a member of the Executive Committee of Save Sacred Heart High School.

After this year, the diocese will no longer provide financial support for the school, Reilly explained. To keep the school operational, an additional $300,000 will be needed by December 1 to cover the anticipated shortfall for the 2012-2013 school year.

The unique challenges of financially supporting an entire school have led to an unorthodox fundraising strategy. The Save Sacred Heart High School committee, a four member committee charged with leading Sacred Heart into its new chapter, is asking for five-year pledges of financial support.

“We expect that it will take three years to turn the school around economically,” said Reilly, whose mother and father graduated from Sacred Heart’s first graduating class.

Another of the diocese conditions is that the responsibility for running the school will transfer from the diocese to the Executive Committee of Save Sacred Heart High School. Reilly, along with fellow alumni Larry Pepper, Charles “Chalky” Ottinger and Mark Ronchetti, were recently approved as the Board of Limited Jurisdiction, the governing body for self-supported Catholic school.

The quartet is highly qualified to attend to the task of overseeing the school. Pepper is a Vineland attorney, Ottinger headed the Vineland schools as superintendent, Ronchetti is an accountant and Reilly served as a trustee on the board for Cumberland County College for eight years, two as the board chairman.

The new board plans to revamp a number of areas to make the school an attractive option for students and their parents, said Reilly. They plan to reorganize the administration and come up with a lower budget for next year. New curriculum, better advertising, and a tuition assistance program are meant to help bring in more students.

But they still face a number of challenges, Reilly explained. One of the difficulties faced by modern Catholic schools is that “its been a long time since Catholic school teachers were all nuns.” Nuns taught students in exchange for housing and though not ideal, it saved Catholic schools a lot of money.

Now, the schools are staffed by teachers who belong to the Catholic School Teachers Union. In the modern era, “the expense of running a school is much more,” he continued.

Reilly believes that the current economic climate is contributing to lower enrollment numbers. The school could hold close to 350 students, however, Reilly estimated the current enrollment to be around 200 students. Part of the board’s plan is to create a foundation that would provide scholarships or subsidize the $8,000 tuition for lower income students.

Sacred Heart is also fighting an uphill battle following the original closing announcement. Reilly said he just learned of two eighth grade girls who will be attending Our Lady of Mercy Academy in the fall because their families believed that Sacred Heart was still closing.

If Sacred Heart were closed, it would leave a “large spot of South Jersey without access to Catholic education,” Reilly said. The closest co-education Catholic school is St. Joseph Catholic School in Hammonton, a 25 mile ride from Vineland.

Whether the family of a student is Catholic or not, Reilly explained that Catholic schools are important. The discipline, academics and community offered through Catholic schools is not easily duplicated.

That sense of community is evident in the “obvious support” Sacred Heart has received from its over 140 different contributors. Many donations and pledges have come from alumni and parents of alumni, said Reilly. Local businesses recognize the value of the school as well and have donated to the cause. He added that one recent contributor called the school “iconic” to Vineland.

“It’s hard for us and all supporters to imagine Vineland without Sacred Heart.”

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