Rally in the Valley

May 15, 2003
Rally in the Valley
By Howie Mansfield
St. James School remains open for indefinite future

On the brink of elimination, St. James School came from behind to win its most important victory. The school, on Syracuse’s south side, eliminated a $93,000 budget deficit and set the course for a bright future.

Bishop James Moynihan announced his decision on St. James School during a press conference on the school’s front steps May 5. “I have heard this statement more than once of late, and now I know it to be true: The Valley Can Sure Rally,” the bishop said. “So please keep that sign out front and center because St. James School is accepting fall registrations.” Students, faculty, staff and parents cheered as the announcement was made public. St. James School had each window decorated with spring flowers, a sign of new life. “On Friday [May 2], the bishop told us that we could tell the students and staff that we were staying open and that we would officially announce it on Monday [May 5],” said Helen Chajka, principal of St. James School. “Everyone was jumping up and down for joy. The kids were hugging and the teachers were crying. It was a great time for our school, to see the happiness in everyone’s faces. We were all relieved.”

Many individuals in the St. James community feel that the influence of Catholic School Management, Inc. and the strategic planning initiative in the diocese helped the school to remain open. “In the first year of the process, St. James School’s group had learned so much that they were able to put it into reality,” said Sister Mary Anne Heenan, CSJ, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools. “It’s a great sign for the future. Next year, all of our elementary schools will be in the strategic planning process and we are finally identifying the leadership to get the job done.” Sister Mary Anne was very happy with the bishop’s announcement. “I’m thrilled they were so successful in meeting the challenges,” she said. “They were able to raise the money they needed. It’s good to have a positive outcome and that people are still willing to make the sacrifice for Catholic school education.”

A meeting with parents and community members in late March brought to light the monetary shortfall and the consequences for an unbalanced budget. This discussion was held with other Catholic schools across the diocese, the bishop said. St. James School went to work and in four weeks, did what many thought they couldn’t do, raise enough money to balance the current year budget and plan for one in the years to come. Chajka said Father Daniel O’Hara, pastor of St. James Church, asked the strategic planning committee to form a task force to handle fundraising. “From the narratives we did for the strategic planning process, we had an accurate picture of our situation,” said Chajka. “We were aware of the financial issues before March, and because of the quick action of our team, we were able to get the money we needed to stay open.”

Tom Brown, a St. James school parent, is a member of the school’s task force. “Our team worked on that and laid the groundwork for success in just a few short weeks. We worked to assess our needs and called the fundraising program ‘St. James: 2003-04 and Beyond,’” Brown said. “It’s not a one-year fix, but a start toward the future. This was a big success for St. James, the parish community, and for the Valley. We couldn’t let this opportunity fade away.” Brown thanked all of the financial support from the community. “We will continue the pledge drive through this month and so far, we have raised over $110,000,” he said. “It’s all of the pre-K through sixth grade students. You kept us motivated and focused on the task.” Chajka said businesses, parishes from within the cluster and alumni were approached for financial support. “People that we normally don’t hear from helped tremendously,” she said. “People knew we could lose the school and so they came forward.”

Sister Mary Anne said other Catholic schools in the diocese had been put on notice about their financial situations. “There were about seven to eight schools we were concerned about because of their current budget,” she said. “We met with the schools individually to see how to fix the problems. And we are happy to say that all the schools in Onondaga County and the Northern Region have met that successfully. It was a wake-up call for these schools that they have to work at being fiscally responsible.” Chajka said since the official announcement, seven new students have enrolled at St. James School. “People are starting to realize that something good is happening at St. James School and they want to be a part of it,” said Chajka.

Bishop Moynihan hopes the example set by St. James School will be an inspiration to other Catholic schools dealing with financial difficulties. “There is still much work to be done, but from what I have seen in just four short weeks, no task is insurmountable,” said Bishop Moynihan. “May God bless you and your families and may God bless St. James School.”

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