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Holy Family board approves elementary facilities plan; Holy Ghost, St. Anthony schools to close

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — Holy Family Catholic Schools Board of Education approved a proposal Oct. 15 that will end Holy Ghost and St. Anthony English K-5 elementary education programs and transition students from these schools to Resurrection and St. Columbkille schools, effective for the 2020-2021 school year.

“We have a thriving system,” said board member Scott Leibfried before casting his vote in favor of the proposal. “This decision is about keeping the system thriving. We’re not closing buildings. We’re going to continue to use all the sites.”

As part of the plan, Holy Ghost’s facilities will continue to serve Dubuque’s north end through dedicated childcare services and St. Anthony’s buildings will remain in use by the Spanish immersion Our Lady of Guadalupe School, also located on that campus.

Leibfried, who represents St. Anthony and Nativity parishes on the board, was one of six lay board members who supported the proposal. Father Phil Gibbs, Resurrection Parish’s pastor who was selected by the pastors of the Dubuque Deanery to serve on the board, also expressed his support in a letter read at the meeting.  Two  lay members voted to support an alternative plan that would have kept Holy Ghost School open. Father Steven Rosonke, who serves as pastoral coordinator for the school system, abstained from the vote because of his connection to St. Anthony School as the pastor of St. Anthony Parish.

The two board members who advocated for keeping Holy Ghost School in operation said that despite the financial deficit brought on by declining enrollment, the school should remain because it successfully serves a diverse group of students and is the church’s only remaining school in the downtown area.

“Holy Ghost really is truly a Catholic school in that it is universal and it plays a fantastic role in evangelization,” said board member Sharon Wulfekuhle-Hefel, alluding to the variety of economic, racial and cultural backgrounds from which the school’s students come. She represents Holy Spirit Parish, which includes Holy Ghost School and Church. She was joined by board member Kevin Mullen of St. Joseph Parish in Key West in supporting the alternative proposal. “I think the north end presence is important,” he said.

Those board members who supported the plan cited several reasons for their decision, including the estimated $800,000 per year in cost savings. This savings would be used to give financial relief to the city’s parishes, which give significant funds to the school system through annual assessments. The proposal would also make it possible to offer better pay and benefits to faculty and staff, according to supporters.

Board chair Brian Kane told the crowd of several dozen people at the meeting that he was supporting the proposal because it would allow the school system to offer “reasonable tuition, reasonable (parish) assessments and reasonable compensation” for years into the future.

“I wish we didn’t have to be here, but we’re walking a tightrope,” said Kane. “I’m going to make a plea tonight to each and every one of you and each and every parent in our system and grandparent or any other stake holder — please stay with us. Every student is going to have an ­equitable opportunity for continued excellent education, and, by God, we’re going to welcome everybody everywhere. That’s going to start tomorrow morning. … It’s not over. This is the beginning of a 10 or 20 year or more marathon, so that we can continue delivering on that mission.”

Kane pointed to a sign in the room which contained the Holy Family mission: “Forming disciples of Jesus Christ through Catholic educational excellence.”

The plan the board chose was the third of three proposals, unveiled to the public Sept. 3. The first option would have kept St. Anthony School’s English elementary program and ended Holy Ghost’s. The second would have ended St. Anthony’s English and preserved Holy Ghost’s program. Under all proposals, students from the closing program or programs would have the option to transition to the system’s remaining English language elementary schools. Before the vote, board members and administrators heard feedback from the community at a series of public meetings.

At those meetings, parents, faculty and staff asked questions and proposed ideas such as increasing marketing and fundraising efforts, creating specialty programs that offer a classical Catholic academy or initiatives for special education students. Many urged the board to delay the decision, including Char Scace of East Dubuque. She and her husband chose to send their son to Holy Ghost due to its individualized attention and welcoming spirit.

“I do understand the financials of the business,” said Scace after the decision. “What I don’t understand, when you look at St. Joe’s (School), Hazel Green, and you look at St. Mary’s (School) in East Dubuque, both of those schools have struggled, and the parents were made aware of it well in advance, and the parents helped keep those schools open. … There’s different things other schools have done, but they knew about it. … I have  a really hard time with the fact that the area could fundraise for $17 million in renovations at Wahlert, but we can’t fundraise at all to keep our elementary schools open.”

Jake Meyer, another Holy Ghost parent, plans now to send his child to a public school and believes many of the Holy Ghost students will not remain in Catholic schools.

“What they should have done is attack the problem in the first place, which is why are they lacking in enrollment? Why has that been decreasing? … Let’s get some marketing. Let’s get some grassroots out there where we can talk to families and encourage them,” said Meyer, who himself is a graduate of the school. “They have a daycare at Holy Ghost, but the parents have said we’ve never been contacted by Holy Family … .”

Cathe Oberfoell, a St. Anthony School parent, said she will be open to other options in the system four her fourth-grader.

“We knew we would just be reacting to whatever decision was being made and be rolling with it,” said Oberfoell. “We feel the board made the decision that needed to be made, and we’re just going to roll with it. For us, it’s one year. It’s sad for families with younger children. I think it may be a strain for families who had St. Anthony’s as a fall back for (Our Lady of Guadalupe School) if one child didn’t fit in with the (Spanish Immersion) program. You (also) have outstanding teachers from other countries who send their children to the English language program.”

Maria Steinlage, a St. Anthony’s graduate who has a child at the school, was still coping with a mix of strong emotions a week after the decision. She was among those who attended the board meeting, and shed tears following the vote. Despite feeling like she was “being moved out of her home,” she is attempting to remain optimistic.

“I want to try to move forward,” said Steinlage. “I’m going to be open minded. I’m going to look at these (other) schools.  … I’m just trying to make the best option for my daughter. They’re trying to keep the schools around for parents that want this for their children, but it makes me a little nervous.”

Steinlage had questions about the long-term viability of the whole system and hopes it will be sustained. Under the plan, some personnel may lose their jobs, but administrators stated that most will retain their positions. Holy Family will continue to formalize details of the transition process in the coming months, including possible solutions for student transportation, staff retention measures and community-building efforts, a press release stated. Once the plan takes effect, there will be three elementary schools — St. Columbkille; Our Lady of Guadalupe, on St. Anthony’s campus; and Resurrection School.

“When we look back at this moment in our history, we will remember it as a pivotal time for our school community. I want us to remember how we came together as one family – Holy Family – supporting and assisting those who faced transitions from schools they had known and loved for generations,” said Holy Family’s Chief Administrator Phil Bormann in a letter to Holy Family parents sent after the decision.


Cover photo: Three Holy Family Catholic Schools Board of Education members speak before voting on the elementary facilities proposals at a meeting at Wahlert Catholic High School Oct. 15. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)