St. Joseph School in Hilo, the only Catholic school on Hawaii island, will close after 151 years in operation unless it can quickly raise $500,000 for the next academic year.
“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Principal Michael Pa‘ekukui, who has been at the helm for 10 months, said Friday. “As a faith-based school we believe in miracles.”
Founded in 1868, St. Joseph has 283 students in preschool through 12th grade and enrollment has been relatively steady recently. But over the years the school has gone into debt as expenses exceeded revenues. And the fallout from the new coronavirus pandemic may push it over the edge.
The Rev. Apolinario Ty, pastor of St. Joseph Church and School, and Pa‘ekukui sent a letter to the school community on Wednesday spelling out the financial situation and issuing a plea for donations.
They said school and parish leaders had considered several models for continuing operations next year but found that in each case the school would lose money — “even with significant faculty cuts, combined grades and addition of online curriculum in some grades.”
“Unfortunately, due to accumulation of past debt to the parish and the Diocese, tuition in arrears for this and past school years, and the impact of COVID-19, the school projects a loss in every scenario proposed,” their letter said.
“Within the next 10 days, we will be looking at every possible scenario that would enable the school to remain open,” it said. “At this time it appears that nearly $500,000 would need to be raised immediately to permit the school to keep our doors open for the 2020-2021 School Year.
“The future may look grim, but there may be an individual(s) who could step up and enable our school to move forward,” the letter concluded.
Pa‘ekukui said that if St. Joseph does ultimately shut down, any donations would be returned to donors, unless they choose to apply the money to the debt. The ultimate decision about closing the school is up to the pastor.
The Class of 2020, with just nine seniors, is small enough that an in-person graduation ceremony was going to proceed today with social distancing. Next year’s senior class would have 22 students and the preschool is at capacity with 49 youngsters.
The junior class, along with all the other high school grades, plus the Student Council have opted to donate their class money to the cause of keeping their school open.
“Isn’t that chicken skin?” Pa‘ekukui said. “It’s hard not to get emotional because they get it, that’s all they have, their prom money and their planning money.”
St. Joseph is the third Catholic school in Hawaii to face closure in three years. Last May, Saint Francis School in Manoa shut down after nearly a century, saddled with debt. It had 442 students. In May 2018, St. Anthony School in Kalihi closed for good after 90 years, its enrollment down to 76 students.
Tuition at St. Joseph’s ranges from $6,500 for prekindergarten to $8,850 for high school.
“The tuition that was charged wasn’t enough to maintain the costs,” Pa‘ekukui said. “The last three administrations were trying to get a handle on that. It’s tough.”
Mike Rockers, superintendent of Hawaii’s Catholic schools, said the parish has been supporting the school but does not have the financial resources to continue.
“The current COVID crisis has compounded the cash shortfalls,” he said. “The COVID situation is really an accelerator. And along with that, there’s so many unknowns.”
On Friday, student finalists in the SJS talent show poured their hearts into live performances streamed to the school ohana.
“They are doing a Zoom talent show as we speak, preschool all the way through 12th grade,” Pa‘ekukui said. “It’s the cutest thing. I’m glad I’m not a judge. I would just want everyone to win.”