When I became Superintendent of Catholic Schools for WNY it soon became clear to me that the financial model to support Catholic education was not sustainable. The current model is based primarily on tuition from families, a little government support and the “gifts of others”. The “gifts” would include the donations given in parish collections, individual scholarship funds given by those who care about Catholic education, legacy giving (endowments) and school fundraisers. At the elementary school level there are few endowments.
A fine example of the frailness of the funding model is when the priest scandal hit (and later COVID-19). Parish offertory went into a deep dive as parishioners withheld financial support to the diocese and funding began to dry up for schools. As a result of this and the diocese filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy there currently is no diocesan funding for Catholic schools.
Prior to working in Catholic elementary education I served in a number of administrative positions at Trocaire College in Buffalo. My final position was as a Chief Administrative Officer. One of the things I admired about the Sisters of Mercy was their long history of providing service to others but also their financial abilities. The sisters owned the college and at one time Mercy hospital which is physically attached to the college. The sisters like many religious orders long ago controlled their destinies by generating their own income to serve others. There are many other examples of this in the religious communities throughout the world.
My experience with the Sisters of Mercy got me to thinking that if Catholic education could generate their own income it could help to create a level of stability that continual fundraising and the gifts of others could not. I think many organizations that rely on fundraising and gifts understand the phenomenon of “donor fatigue”.
Currently, in my opinion Catholic education at the elementary level has never been more at risk of disappearing as an option for families. This is especially true for schools in both urban and rural settings where poverty exists the most. In discussion with the Bishop at the time, we agreed on several principles. First, we did not want Catholic education to be limited only to those who could afford it and secondly, we did not want to abandon Catholic schools in areas where only one Catholic school existed.
We must keep in mind that if Catholic elementary schools disappear this will have an impact on Catholic secondary and higher education. The Catholic elementary schools have long been feeders to the next level of Catholic education. It is true this influence has diminished over the years as elementary school enrollment has dropped. Yet it is at the elementary level where the Catholic faith and the valued traditions of a Catholic education can take root. It is these values and traditions that inspire young people and parents to seek out this experience in our Catholic educational institutions regardless of their personal faith.
There are also other fiscal challenges for Catholic schools. Constant turnover of administrators, faculty and staff due to low wages and marginal if any benefits threatens the confidence of parents in their schools. It also creates a continual need for professional development and the rebuilding of teacher-parent relationships.
The original plan for establishing the CCLC was to create a pot of funding to help initiate some of the developmental projects for income that I envisioned. It was proposed that the six remaining diocesan high schools and one elementary school should be sold to their schools and allow those schools to become totally independent. The diocese owned the school buildings and leased them to the schools but provided no other financial support. Each school was required to handle all costs related to building maintenance. Accordingly, boilers, windows, roofs, etc. were the financial responsibility of the school not the diocese. Since the buildings and properties would not serve any other purpose other than schools, the Bishop agreed to my concept of selling and giving the proceeds to the CCLC as seed money for new investment projects. And then came the retirement of the Bishop and the filing of Chapter 11. The proposal was no longer feasible. However, the need for financial support of Catholic education is still viable and necessary.
In 20019 the Catholic Children’s Learning Corporation was founded as a 501C3 charity to provide financial assistance to the Catholic schools located in the eight counties of Western New York. The counties in include Erie, Niagara, Genesee, Alleghany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Wyoming and Orleans. The CCLC is an independent charity and is not associated with the Diocese of Buffalo. It does have relationship agreements with the Catholic schools it supports.
The vision of the CCLC is to create income for the schools through the acquisition of real property, business investments, the creation of unique entrepreneurial endeavors and strategic partnerships with private investors, developers and other non-profit organizations. The CCLC will also seek out grant opportunities to support not only its own initiatives but those of Catholic schools as well. The CCLC also participates in legacy giving for those who wish to support Catholic education. We also accept donations.
It is not the intent of the CCLC to be in competition or interfere with the generous work and commitment that other WNY charitable organizations make annually in support of Catholic education. The CCLC will not conduct fundraisers. In partnership with community leaders throughout WNY the CCLC will implement a comprehensive business model based on a variety of needs for the community and the development of its youth. An ultimate goal beyond simply generating income for Catholic schools is to provide opportunities for youth to work within some of the CCLC initiatives in order to learn viable work skills and to earn their own income to supplement their school tuition.
The CCLC values Catholic education and supports the concept that a faith-based education regardless of a person’s own religious orientation helps to educate a moral, compassionate and giving society.
Dr. Michael C. LaFever