Chemainus school fundraising to repay $800,000 debt, avoid closure

Help Save St. Joe’s campaign launched

The more than 50-year-old St. Joseph’s Chemainus Catholic Elementary School is in danger of closing if it can’t follow through on a plan to pay down more than $800,000 in debt.

Parents, teachers and students officially kicked off a Help Save St. Joe’s Campaign on Saturday (Jan. 6) with an event at the school, including music and family-friendly activities.

“We would be in danger of closing if we don’t get our financial house in order,” said Principal Keefer Pollard. “What that really means is developing an operating budget that we can meet every year and paying down our debt.”

Due to many factors such as bus and school maintenance as well as supplementing student tuition, the faith enriched school, which has served the community since 1964, has accumulated $800,000 in debt during the past 20 years.

“That’s consistent with the rest of the schools in the Diocese of Victoria,” Pollard said. “A few years ago the aggregate amount was $5-million for the six schools and since then we’ve paid that down to $3.5-million. Everyone in the Diocese is getting their financial house in order.”

Last year, the school was informed by the Diocese’s Finance Committee that unless it can meet the budget and then produce a payment plan for the debt, it could face closure.

A Sustainability Committee was formed at the school and St. Joe’s successfully balanced its budget last year and is on track to do the same again this year.

Pollard, who took over as principal this past September, said one of the first steps taken was to develop a more “efficient teaching staff” by going from five classes to four, making the best use of the number of educators and space available.

Going forward, they’ll continue to find ways to chip away at the outstanding balance as parents launch a “vigorous” fundraising campaign.

“One of the biggest things we can deal with right away is the deficit because that’s costing us $30,000 a year in fees,” Pollard said. “Every part that we chip away at that $800,000 means more money towards our kids’ education.”

Parents have coined the phrase ‘The Little School That Will in The Little Town That Did’ and are organizing events for the remainder of the year, including a run in the spring and cookbook that will be published in time for Mother’s Day, with the goal of raising upwards of $50,000 annually.

The annual dinners and galas and Adopt-A-Student program will help support the campaign.

“We’re hoping once the community really finds out about it then with more people willing to help we can really allow for more things to happen,” said St. Joseph’s Parent Auxiliary Committee president Christina Abi Hanna, who has two children attending the school and another in pre-kindergarten. “If the school can prove (to the Diocese) that the community is rallying, the money is coming in, then it’s a very positive thing for the school.”

Anyone can also help out by contributing to an ongoing bottle drive through the school’s account at the Ladysmith depot.

St. Joe’s provides K-7 education to almost 100 children and in addition to embracing the new methods of the B.C. Curriculum has also broadened students’ learning by introducing daily Hul’qumi’num lessons.

Abi Hanna said high school teachers remark how they can always pick out a St. Joe’s graduate in a classroom.

“The kids leave our school and they’re really set for life. The school really pushes good work ethic, love, acceptance of each other, and respect, so those are huge things kids are learning early on,” she said. “It’s a really family-oriented school, these kids are leaving really well-centred and feeling cared for.”

Financially on track, there’s no threat of closure in the immediate future as St. Joseph’s continues to implement strategies to meet its debt goals.

“The measures we’ve taken to operate within our budget and the enthusiasm from the parents for paying down the debt leave us feeling very hopeful,” Pollard said. “We need that money for educating kids, not for paying bank fees.”

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