‘Significant piece of Park Falls’ fighting to stay open

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Declining enrollment and falling revenues threaten to shutter St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School. The Park Falls community is banding together to keep the 92-year-old institution open in 2014-15. (Submitted photo)
Declining enrollment and falling revenues threaten to shutter St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School. The Park Falls community is banding together to keep the 92-year-old institution open in 2014-15. (Submitted photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald Staff

PARK FALLS — As the annual open enrollment period nears, St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School is fighting for its life.

Founded 92 years ago, the Park Falls elementary and middle school is short on cash. It needs approximately $220,000 if it is to remain open for the 2014-15 school year, according to Ken Dischler, director of stewardship and development for the parish and school.

St. Anthony’s 116 pupils, preschool through eighth grade, hail from Park Falls, Butternut, Fifield and Phillips. More than 40 percent of the students are not Catholic; 18 percent of children in Park Falls attend the school, according to Dischler.

The 92-year-old building is a cornerstone of the Price County community, said Dischler, who has worked at St. Anthony for nearly two years. Site of events, gatherings and free Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, it encompasses two city blocks.

“We employ a significant number of people,” he added. “It’s a significant piece of the puzzle in our community.”

No one — local businesspeople, students, staff, parents or parish members — wants to see the lights go out at St. Anthony School, Dischler said, noting this isn’t the first time parish and school officials have faced the possibility.

Last year, confronted by a similar situation, they elected to keep the doors open for 2013-14. Dischler can’t isolate any specific cause for their financial struggles — just the convergence of declining enrollment, falling revenues and rising costs.
They’ve tried to adjust expenditures accordingly, but operating costs are draining parish coffers.

“There’s been a lot of belt-tightening,” he said. “We don’t want to be in that situation every year.”

This year, they are taking what Dischler calls a “two-prong” approach. Short-term, they need the estimated $220,000 to stay open. Once funding is secured, they’ll concentrate on long-term endowment options.

“We had a luncheon meeting with some businesspeople, and we had some really good things come out of that,” he said.

Transparency is their strategy for convincing the community to rally around St. Anthony. In two town hall meetings, officials talked about the predicament, illustrated with budget-shortfall figures, and asked for support.

So far, they’ve raised more than $80,000. Dischler believes they can bring in more than $30,000 in additional revenues — a tuition increase will be offset by the new income tax deduction — and they continue to reach out to the diocese, neighboring parishes and the community.

“We feel there are people out there who have a deep commitment to Catholic education,” added Dischler. “We’re being very forthright. We’re not hiding anything from our parish or our community.”

Even if they don’t cross the $220,000 finish line by early February, he feels they’ll be able to make an educated decision on whether to enroll students for next year.
Fr. Shaji Joseph Pazhukkathara, parochial administrator of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, has appointed a strategic planning committee to steer the school into the future.

“Ten people are really pouring their heart and soul into this effort,” Dischler said.

“I firmly believe that St. Anthony’s School is a blessing for the Park Falls community as well as our neighboring communities of Butternut, Fifield and Phillips,” Fr. Pazhukkathara wrote in the Jan. 12 bulletin. “I think if we all come together, we can keep our school.”

Inside the school, the staff is brainstorming ways to enhance students’ education. They’ve had a community garden for several years, and they want to be innovative in the classroom as well.

“There’s two areas that I think we will be looking at,” said Michael Plemon, principal of the school.

First, he wants to supplement their focus on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — by applying differentiated learning styles in science. They’re “hashing over” adding more hands-on options, labs and project-based learning, Plemon said.
A second goal is to create an in-house instrumental music program.

“Right now, our kids are in band, but they have band with the Chequamegon School District, and we bus them all over for band practice and band as a course,” he explained. “I think we’d like to provide a course a couple days a week. I can see that enhancing our Mass. I think we’d get more kids involved in band if we had it on campus.”

But, before those improvements can be instituted, the school needs to jump its financial hurdle.

Plemon spent more than 25 years in public schools before joining the staff at St. Anthony.

“I’ve just seen so many wonderful things in this school educationally,” he said.
He knows St. Anthony’s academic strengths, but he also believes the school is an essential community asset.

“It touches so many people directly or indirectly,” he added. “Parochial schools are not for everyone. Neither are airports. But it’s still an asset.”

He’s grateful for the generous response from the community.

“Words can’t express my appreciation,” said the principal. “I’m very optimistic.”
Dischler agreed.

“Eighty-thousand dollars in two months is nothing to sneeze at,” he said.

How you can help
Contributions can be sent to
St. Anthony of Padua School
200 S. 5th Ave.
Park Falls, WI 54552
Or call Ken Dischler at
(715) 762-4494

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