Catholic Academy of Sussex County reinvents school district
This article by Thomas J. Healey originally appeared on NJ.com. To read the full article, click here
Without a single campus, faculty or student body to its name, the 3-year-old partnership of Catholic schools that’s flourishing in northwestern New Jersey can hardly be considered an “academy.” But even if it’s more virtual than physical, the Catholic Academy of Sussex County is having a huge impact on the governance and administration of education in that corner of the state, and could well serve as a model for other parochial school systems that face extinction.
Like many Catholic school districts, the one in Sussex County found itself in trouble. Two of its four elementary schools were in danger of closing, victims of declining enrollment and imploding finances. The bright light in this picture was Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta, but even its administrators were alarmed at the diminishing enrollment of feeder schools.
Rather than succumb to closures, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, which runs the county’s five parochial schools, opted for a dramatic change in management and governance. It created the Catholic Academy of Sussex County and gave it the authority to administer all five schools from a single business office. The diocese entrusted day-to-day operations to a four-member lay team of business and finance professionals.
A single budget is now prepared by the academy finance team, with input from the principals of each school. Responsibility for planning, marketing, fundraising and other administrative functions are vested at the academy level. Independent audits are conducted.
The clergy remains an integral part of this enterprise. Serving as director of the academy is Msgr. Kieran McHugh, the long-standing president of Pope John XXIII. And the parishes within the diocese continue to provide critical financial support and advocacy. A board of trustees, comprised of three pastors and 11 lay members who serve the school system and its 2,200 students in an advisory capacity, oversees the operating functions.
The academy, in place since July 2009, has helped restore financial stability to the district: three of its schools are profitable and the two once in danger of closing now break even. The student population has either held steady or slightly increased over the past three years. The growing confidence in the future of Catholic education in Sussex County is reflected in another meaningful way: fundraising. More than $1.5 million in philanthropic support has flowed into the elementary schools.
At its core, the Catholic Academy of Sussex County is about economies of scale and economies of expertise. In other words, giving different groups — be they clergy, educators, finance or administrative specialists — the freedom to do what they do best within a framework of accountability and good business practices.
What that means is that problems are finally being addressed, and decisions are being made. Leadership changes were instituted, for example, at three of the four elementary schools. In addition, all eighth grade classes were recently moved to Pope John XXIII to begin preparing students a year earlier for the academic rigors of high school. Driving that key action was the Board of Trustees, working closely with the Diocese of Paterson.
Even as other Catholic school districts visit Sussex County to see the novel managerial system firsthand, its stewards acknowledge that it’s still a work in progress. But this hardly detracts from a more pointed truth.
Instead of taking the path of least resistance and shutting school doors, a Catholic diocese acted with boldness, imagination and authority to build a better system. Other struggling Catholic schools should take a long and hard look at the educational flower blossoming in Sussex County.
Thomas Healey is a retired partner of Goldman Sachs and currently a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. He was assistant secretary of the treasury under President Reagan. Keep the conversation going at njvoices.com.