Parents, community rally to save St. Bartholomew Catholic School in Bethesda

Parents, community rally to save St. Bartholomew Catholic School in Bethesda

Group had to raise $750,000, hit enrollment benchmarks to keep school open

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Sales of flowers to raise money for St. Bartholomew Catholic School

Barbara Brown, a resource teacher at St. Bartholomew Catholic School and mother of current and past students, helped last month with a poinsettia sale that was a fundraiser.

Photo provided by Neda Ghassabeh

When supporters heard St. Bartholomew Catholic School in Bethesda was in danger of closing, they dug in. They worked to stabilize short-term enrollment. They surpassed a $750,000 fundraising benchmark — taking in much more than in an average year, in a fraction of the time.

Given a little more than two months, they scrambled to keep the school open — and succeeded. Organizers learned last week that their efforts worked, for now, although future challenges loom.

Even though the group didn’t hit every benchmark, its effort was strong enough for the school to get another chance.

At an Oct. 29 meeting of faculty, parents and board members, Father Mark Knestout, the pastor of the church, said the school was facing severe financial challenges and would close unless three conditions were met:

  • Expanding enrollment by at least 40 additional students, giving the school about 175 students for 2020-21.
  • Retaining 100% of current students for the 2020-21 school year.
  • Raising at least $750,000 that would offset the 2019-20 deficit and be used for the 2020-21 budget

Christopher Cahill, a parent who led efforts to hit the benchmarks, said the feat seemed insurmountable at first, but he was determined to get there.

For Cahill, there was no choice — the group had to succeed and the school had to stay open. Cahill said he and his husband, Richard, have two children, including a daughter, Logan, 7, who has Down syndrome. They failed many times to find a local school that would take her; St. Bartholomew did.

St. Bartholomew is a prekindergarten to 8th grade school on River Road, part of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Tuition income supports the operation of the school, which has a current enrollment of about 135. To be in better financial shape, it needs closer to 160 students, but ideally around 200, said Bill Ryan, the secretary for Catholic schools for the archdiocese.

The school raises money each year to offset its budget deficit, but fundraising has been getting harder due to “donor fatigue,” Ryan said.

Cahill said the archdiocese has indicated before that the school was struggling, but the threat of closure crystallized the problems and made people focus on how to address them.

After the Oct. 29 meeting, the school community had about 10 weeks to meet the goals. The effort had to be driven by parents.

Cahill, who owns three businesses, said he hammered out a plan of action. About three dozen supporters gathered a few days later to get to work.

Neda Ghassabeh, a parent and alumna who is the school’s director of admissions and development, said enrolling 40 additional students was within reach and in line with what has happened the last two years.

The fundraising goal presented a larger hurdle. But when the campaign launched, money started coming in and kept coming. There were donut sales. There were pledges. Students raided piggy banks and brought in crumpled dollar bills, chipping in hundreds of dollars total.

Cahill said about 30 individuals and families donated at least $10,000 apiece. Two “angel” donors each added $100,000 once fundraising reached certain levels.

Right around deadline day, the total amount had climbed to about $872,000, Ghassabeh said.

“This was a truly incredible journey,” she said.

The group crunched numbers and determined that tuition had to increase 16% for the 2020-21 year, from $11,700 to $13,600, to make the school financially sustainable.

Cahill said the group surveyed St. Bartholomew families to see what they would be willing to pay. It was about evenly divided between the old tuition level and the new one. Some will stay at the old rate for a “grandfathered year,” Knestout wrote in a Jan. 14 letter to the St. Bartholomew community.

The survey results were anonymous, so Cahill then had to contact every family to get commitments. He said he spent about 12 hours one Saturday making phone calls and reached all but 12 families, who he talked to later.

The retention rate — referring to all students rising to kindergarten through eighth grade, eligible for reenrollment — for 2020-21 was 89 percent, short of the 100 percent goal. Those families went through an electronic registration process and placed a $500 deposit, according to Knestout’s letter.

Ghassabeh wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat that 102 students have registered for next year out of 115 eligible for reenrollment. Another 16 new students have enrolled so far.

Knestout’s letter called it an “excellent response,” better than in past years and close to the archdiocese’s goal for all schools of 92 percent. “So I considered this benchmark well met and quite good,” Knestout wrote.

Ryan said the group accomplished a great deal, but the work isn’t done.

The school is raising money through a casino night on Feb. 1 and holding an open house on Feb. 7.

“I would like 175 enrolled as it would place us in a very good position,” Knestout wrote, “but I will settle for 160 as this is now considered the break-even point for our draft budget next year.”

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