VERO BEACH — When St. Edward’s opens its doors for the start of a new school year Wednesday, the usual mix of emotions will be compounded by the school’s new reality.
The good news is that as a result of a frantic summer in which the three Rs were remodeling, refurbishing and relocating, St. Ed’s has successfully combined its upper, middle and lower schools on a single campus.
It did so after completing a fourth R – restructuring – that head of school Mike Mersky said guarantees that the 45-year-old school “is going to continue for generations to come.”
The sad news is almost 200 fewer students and 13 fewer teachers and staff will be part of the St. Ed’s family this fall, as the independent day school struggles to level off at what trustees see as a size that is sustainable for the future.
“We knew we were going to get a significantly smaller enrollment,” Mersky said. “We thought 580 or 570.”
Instead, he said, earlier numbers have enrollment for both upper and lower schools at “somewhere between 530 and 545” – defining the new St. Ed’s with its smallest student body in 25 years.
Also sad for some is the fate awaiting the charming Lower School in Old Riomar, St. Edward’s original campus when it opened in 1965.
Currently under contract, the oak-shaded 80-year-old building, once home to the Riomar Country Club, now faces demolition and plans call for the shady playground and school parking to become the lawns of 10 luxury homes, all set on an ungated shellstone cul-de- sac to be called Old Oak Lane.
The fact that doors are opening at St. Ed’s at all, however, is a testament to the island community’s generosity – and its choice to give to a private school, among a range of needy organizations.
And Mersky’s and the board members’ extraordinary efforts at fundraising over the past year aren’t over.
Next is a massive effort to build the school’s endowment, so the new St. Ed’s does not have to rely on tuition for operating expenses like salaries.
The continued existence of the school had been in grave doubt since a $15.3 million debt from a massive re-do and expansion in 1999 increasingly burdened a campus that did not see the anticipated growth. That debt burden is now lifted.
Mersky said St. Edward’s has survived by combining campuses and “restructuring” the school’s financial obligations, as Mersky phrases it, offset by pledges to the so-called Pirate Fund.
Having the school come together from two campuses forms “an important anchor” in students’ lives, Mersky said.
First on the agenda for Head of School Mersky is a school-wide assembly, the first ever.
Mersky said that number is still in flux, since some grant recipients may opt to go elsewhere, releasing those funds to others. He puts the number tentatively at “25 to 30” students who will not be returning because their tuition grants were terminated. The total student body, however, will likely end down by 180-195 students.
“We are where we need to be,” he said.