St. Edward’s declares ‘victory’ in drive to get out from under crushing debt

VERO BEACH — St. Edward’s School, in an intense four-month campaign, appears close to raising enough money in Pirate Fund pledges to enable it to get out from under the crushing debt burden created by expansion a decade ago.

Not only will it open its doors in the fall – something some feared was earlier in question – it is pressing ahead with a strategic vision that trustees say should guarantee its future. That vision includes substantial downsizing and the sale of its historic lower-school campus. “The school’s future has been secured,” said St. Edward’s board member Brian Barefoot. “The support of the community has been phenomenal.”

While St. Ed’s officials have publicly declined any comment on how much of the $13 million in pledges they were seeking has been raised to date in the Pirate Fund campaign, sources say the campaign has obtained commitments “into eight figures” with some key pledges to fill out the final amount expected in the days ahead.

“Some people said, ‘If you get to a certain level, I’m in,'” Barefoot said. “Nobody wants to be first in a pledge drive like this. They want to be last.”

While Head of School Michael Mersky refused to discuss the Pirate Fund drive, the hoped-for sale of the St. Ed’s lower school campus in Riomar (it has already attracted two serious potential buyers, according to sources), or any other details of the complex effort to get St. Ed’s back on its feet, Mersky felt sufficiently confident of the future to finally send out 2010- 2011 tuition contracts last week. The bills were accompanied by an enthusiastic letter declaring victory.

“I am honored and thrilled to announce that St. Edward’s School has taken the proactive steps necessary to ensure the financial stability and future viability of our school,” he said in a letter to parents. “This seminal moment in the history of our School now allows us to ring our victory bell as a clarion for others to hear that St. Edward’s School will be here as a presence in this community, educating children for generations to come.”

But while St. Ed’s is looking to the future, not all of the current teachers or staff will be part of it. Some of the private school’s most experienced teachers – including Sue Riley, a 48-year-old math teacher for the past 10 years – are being informed that their contracts will not be renewed.

The sadness over the departures, however, is tempered by relief over the success of the pledge drive — known as The Pirate Fund – the brainchild of a newly fiscally assertive board, reacting with urgency to an enormous debt burden threatening the school’s future.

Launched just over a year ago by Board Chairman Ron Edwards, as well as board member Lorne Waxlax and alums Matt Gafton and Bill Becker, the Pirate Fund raised $5 million dollars in pledges in the first three months of its existence.

But in the subsequent six months, fund-raisers managed to elicit only another $2.2 million in pledges. That meant that as of November, a little over half of the needed $13 million had been raised.

In November, the newly hired Mersky pushed the drive’s December 2010 deadline up to January. And since November, much of the total needed has been raised, sources said, most of it from barrier island parents and alumni of St. Edward’s.

“My guess is, the individuals who contributed to the Pirate Fund, if they don’t already know, they will know soon what a difference the fund made,” Barefoot said.

It appears that the financial crisis brought on by an ambitious building expansion begun in 1999 has been averted. The school has had to place its lower school campus on the market, expecting to consolidate its 200 students onto the main campus.

Further, it is eliminating both faculty and administrative positions, in anticipation of a smaller student body. Scholarship aid also is being significantly curtailed.

“We’re not going to change the student ratio,” said Board Chairman Edwards. Currently, that number is 11 staff members to one student.

Edwards expects enrollment for next year to come in at around 600, down from 725. A campus-wide downsizing was announced in November as a part of a master plan to keep the school solvent once the debt was retired.

The next step for the school will be to consolidate campuses.

“We have to make the final move to a one-campus school next year, and change is not easy for anyone,” says Susan Temple, who heads up the parents’ association. She is the mother of a child in the lower school and another in middle school.

“We’re in transition, we know that. But we know the strengths the school is going to bring to our children, and to Vero,” Temple said.

Beyond merging campuses, school leaders have said they need to rein in tuition costs. For that, board members say, a healthy endowment is critical. Some St. Ed’s board members who have been involved in raising pledges for the Pirate Fund think raising money to shore up the school’s finances going forward may be easier.

“Most people are not interested in giving money to something like the Pirate Fund,” Barefoot said. “They have to give money to scholarships or faculty salaries and feel they are contributing to the growth of the school. The annual fund is absolutely essential. Tuition revenue is not enough to cover the school.”

“That’s always very hard, raising money for endowments,” says Waxlax. “But some of the people who don’t like to give to debt would probably be interested in other options.”

Currently tuition ranges from $16,600 for kindergarten, not including fees, to $22,100, plus fees, for the upper school. Next year, rates will rise by 4 percent, somewhat less than the increases of the previous two years.

Barefoot added that by the first of this past November, 100 percent of faculty and staff had contributed to the annual fund, something he said is “unheard of in second school education.”

“It reflects on the leadership that Mike Mersky displayed right from the get-go,” he said.

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