'Small School That Could' Prepares to Fight for its Future
St. Joe's Big Bend almost didn't have an open house this past weekend, as church officials said they would have to close the school; parents, however had other ideas, and will organize to make sure there is a next year, and beyond.
There was a little more to this year's open house at St. Joe's Big Bend open house for its school on Sunday: determination.
Less than a week earlier, students and parents learned from Pastor Dick Robinson that a decision had been made to close the school at the end of the current year. However, parents rallied to ask the church to reconsider, with the goal of working together to keep the school afloat.
Principal Sue Shawver said the news was in many ways was galvanizing for parents who had come to expect there to always be a next year.
"It's like when you're about to lose someone close to you, you really appreciate them, and do what you can to make sure they stick around," she said.
Parent Shelley Wohler agreed, saying, "Sometimes it's that wake up call that people need to take action, and I'm just so proud to see parents coming together and stepping up to organize."
"A short 18 months after famed Green Bay Packer's running back, Ryan Grant, visited the 'small school that could,' events and finances caused leadership to close the school," said parent Mike See. "Two days after that shocking announcement, a crowded room of parents, grandparents, young adult graduates, and parishioners refused to leave at the conclusion of meeting until they got the answer they wanted."
The moniker came as Grant took pictures and played in the gym, under a roof that had been failing. Then, parishoners donated their time and talent to engineer and contract a solution at a fraction of estimated cost.
Economic conditions caused the school staff and teachers — already paid below the recommended Archdiocese of Milwaukee guidelines — to go without raises for past 4 years, which led to the initial decision by Fr. Robinson to close.
"These are very talented and experienced professionals working at a fraction of what they're worth. That weighed heavy on me, and still does," he said. "Volunteering is required to run our school and parish, our stewardship hours have suffered as both parents worked to hold their own home finances together. I saw no way out. I took the lack of volunteers as lack of interest. I was mistaken."
Generally, archdiocesan schools operate with the parishes providing about 40 percent of the total cost of education and parents supplying the remainder. St. Joe's current tuition of $2,800 per year for students in grades 1-8 is about average for parents to pay. The present enrollment of around 130 features about 40 percent of students from Muskego.
However, parish council member Carrie Schanen said, "The parish contribution has been between 47 to 61 percent over the past few years, which will have to change. What will need to happen is to take the energy we have now, and channel that into strategic planning."
Parents will meet on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. to discuss what the initial steps will be, and parish officials say that a financial outlook will be a part of that discussion, although they aren't yet certain what the numbers will be.
"Our finance committee will work with parents, but right now, we aren't sure what will be required. However, parents have really rallied to take on the mission of this school, and I'm confident we can overcome the challenges that lie ahead."
In the meantime, fundraisers like a "Brew and Chew" beer tasting and auction planned in April take on an even greater importance, and the school is hopeful that the entire community will help them to reach their goals, whatever they may be.