The St Bede’s community is rallying to save the Red Hill Catholic School as a funding cut and low enrolments combine to threaten its viability.
Just before the school holidays, the Catholic Education Office advised the K-6 school that it faced a 25 per cent loss in funding over the next eight years due to the new direct measure of income (DMI) funding formula based on parents’ median incomes.
The direct measure of income method replaced the previous socio-economic status (or SES score) to determine the capacity of parents to contribute to the cost of schooling through fees.
In a letter to parents and carers, Catholic Education Office director Ross Fox said St Bede’s had the highest DMI (115) of all Catholic primary schools in the Archdiocese. He announced a consultation process on the way forward for the school but did not offer any alternatives other than big fee rises and more enrolments, although that would also bring infrastructure challenges.
He told parents that closing the school, which has 140 children enrolled, was a possibility that needed to be considered.
But parent Monica Kyburz said the community was working on a number of ideas that would be put to the Catholic Education Office to keep the school open.
“We intend to work very closely with Catholic Education to find a pragmatic solution to secure the future of the school,” she said.
“We’re quite a small school but a really big community and we’re committed to securing the future of the school whatever it takes.”
Mr Fox said the school was not in a financial crisis yet but the years ahead meant steadily increasing deficits. He blamed the ACT Government for adopting the needs-based DMI system in 2018, flowing from the Gonski education reforms.
At present, parents pay about $4,000 a year, but the Catholic Education Office had projected fee increases over the next eight years that would take the annual bill to about $15,000, higher than other Catholic schools in the ACT.
He said they did have transitional funds available but it could not carry the school indefinitely.
The school community had proposed a number of ideas that the Catholic Education Office hadn’t considered that needed a really close look, he said.
“There are some scenarios in which it’s possible we can keep St Bede’s operating,” Mr Fox said.
“It’s going to need a huge commitment from parents and the community. We need to work through that.”
Mr Fox said the school could close at the earliest by the end of the year but could also keep going for several years to come.
“We’d be dishonest if we didn’t share the significance of this,” he said.
“There is no doubt in our minds St Bede’s is a highly valued Catholic school – valued for its teaching, community and pastoral care. We’d love it to continue.”
But he said it was difficult to see how the status quo could be maintained in terms of fee levels and enrolments.
Ms Kyburz, who has three children at St Bede’s, said it was confusing and upsetting for the community at a time of the year that is normally one of celebration.
“We’re just trying to work out why Catholic Education would see any benefit in shutting down such a vibrant school community,” she said.
She said St Bede’s was a diverse and inclusive school that offered an alternative to the big private schools in the Inner South and Red Hill Public School.
“Some kids struggle at larger schools … St Bede’s provides an environment for them where they can flourish,” Ms Kyburz said.
She said Canberrans valued choice in education and how parents had worked together to find a solution showed how they loved the school.
St Bede’s has been rebuilding enrolments since Canberra Grammar’s decision to go co-ed led to departures.
Mr Fox said if the school did close, Catholic Education would assist in placing students at its nearby schools in Narrabundah, Curtin, Garran and Pearce, and it had guaranteed the jobs of all 22 staff.
A working party had been formed and the school board met with the Catholic Education Office on Wednesday afternoon (14 April). There will be town hall meetings at the school on 20 April and 12 May at 6:00 pm.
The Catholic Education Office is taking submissions until 27 April and an online survey will be open until then.