This year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week, “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge and Service,” expressed a reality at the center of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s seven Catholic high schools and 20 Catholic elementary schools: these schools are more than educational institutions, they are communities and they form an important part of the larger Church and civil communities which they serve. This reality is also at the heart of the discussion regarding the consolidation of Bishop Donahue Memorial High School into Central Catholic High School: what parents, alumni, and others are concerned about is community. Indeed, this is the one word which appears most often in the letters and emails I have been receiving since the decision was announced.
I understand the reaction of students, parents, and alumni. They are proud of the Bishop Donahue community and all that it means to them and to the Catholic community in Marshall County. I, too, am proud of Bishop Donahue Memorial High School and its accomplishments during its 62 years. And I, too, am concerned about the life of the Catholic community, not just in Marshall County but in the 55 counties of our State and our Diocese.
The decision to consolidate Bishop Donahue into Central Catholic was made in light of the communities which these schools and the Diocese serve. Archbishop Swint established Bishop Donahue in 1955, in response to the overcrowding at Central Catholic High School and the projections for population growth in the region over the next decade. That continued growth was short-lived and our communities have been steadily losing population, especially among young families. Bishop Donahue High School never had the student body for which it was built, though there was a time when Catholic schools were able to operate at very low cost to families and the Diocese, thanks to the sacrifice of men and women Religious.
As Religious left our schools, the cost of education steadily rose, while the school buildings aged, they required costly maintenance, and schools began to lack the facilities to meet current educational needs. Faced with the challenge of necessarily increasing tuition to help meet escalating costs, the number of families seeking a Catholic high school education is decreasing. In the counties of the Northern Panhandle, none of our schools are the size they once were and very few come close to meeting their annual operational expenses. Seven years ago, when I first raised concerns about Bishop Donahue’s viability, there were 150 students; now there are 101, with only 15 in its freshman class. The promise of 30 students for next year would merely replace the graduating class, and not help the school to grow at all, nor overcome the other challenges facing it.
The Diocese financially supports all of its Catholic school communities in various ways. For some of them, like Bishop Donahue, the Diocese provides assistance to meet the teachers’ salaries and benefits. In recent years, the Diocese has provided more than $200,000 a year in direct assistance so that teachers could be paid; in the first two months of this year, the Diocese has given $116,500. If the current shortfall at Bishop Donahue continues in the remaining months of the school year, the Diocese will need to give $350,000 just to help make ends meet. Since 2007, the Diocese has covered operating losses at Bishop Donahue totaling $2,167,954, equaling 20% of the total operating subsidies I have granted to all our 27 Catholic schools since I became Bishop in 2005.
To put these numbers differently, the funds raised by Bishop Donahue supporters over the last month would not cover the cost of a single pay period; the total contributions pledged for each of the next five years would also fall short of a single pay period’s cost. The financial commitment is daunting for the local community and it is for the Diocese.
While it may not seem like it at times, the Catholic community in this part of our State has been very blessed: In Ohio and Marshall Counties alone, there is our only Catholic university, two Catholic high schools, and five Catholic elementary schools. Moreover, there is also our Catholic hospital, one of the largest employers in our State, two Catholic nursing homes, the highest concentration of parishes and the largest number of priests in any part of the Diocese. We sometimes overlook the very large commitment that our Diocesan Church has made in just two of our State’s 55 counties. Nowhere else in our State are so many Catholic churches, schools, charitable services, and health care institutions available to serve our people.
As I have shared with many who have written me, Central Catholic High School is just 5.9 miles from the doors of Bishop Donahue. With the modernization that Central has carried out over the past decade through its successful development efforts, I have become convinced that consolidating these two Diocesan high schools into one educational community is the right choice for our students and their families. The students would receive the benefit of new STEM labs, classrooms with integrated technology, a renovated gym, and other amenities which will support the learning process. There is sufficient room at Central Catholic High School for current students at Bishop Donahue, and their added numbers would certainly benefit the learning experience for all, making new opportunities available in academics, service learning, and athletics.
When the consolidation announcement was made in January, my staff reached out to every current student’s family to explain the financial assistance that the Diocese will provide to Bishop Donahue students transferring to Central Catholic and the availability of transportation to assist students in getting to school each day. These things are important to me in order to assist families in making the transition and to encourage students to continue their Catholic school education. The funds that Donahue supporters have raised so far could also be made available to students from Marshall County for scholarships at Central Catholic and the pledged funds could be earmarked for Marshall County students in future years. I hope to work with these supporters to continue to build our Catholic school community serving Marshall and Ohio Counties.
I ask the Bishop Donahue community, the Central Catholic community, the parishioners in Marshall and Ohio Counties and the broader Ohio Valley to join me in working together as consolidation moves forward. The remainder of the school year at Bishop Donahue should be used to celebrate the School’s wonderful history and achievements, and to assist students and their families to transition to a new academic community, infused with the same Marist values and motivated by the same Catholic spiritual and intellectual tradition. As these two schools merge, they will form a stronger educational community which will continue to serve our broader community for many years to come.
Entrusting you to the care of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, I am,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+Most Reverend Michael J. Bransfield
Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston