St. Helen’s Catholic School in southeast Fresno will remain open thanks to hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by community members – including an anonymous $250,000 donation that came in shortly before a May 31 deadline.
Among those who helped reach a $600,000 goal were children who emptied their piggy banks to help. Fundraisers included children making and selling bracelets, car washes, concerts, raffles, walkathons and tamale sales.
“You name it, we had it,” said Ross Fuentes, St. Helen’s school board president.
We were fighting the good fight – not for myself, not for the staff – it was for the children.
Jason Garza, principal of St. Helen’s Catholic School
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno announced St. Helen’s was saved during a Friday morning news conference. The diocese previously announced in March that St. Helen’s would close at the end of the 2016-17 school year as a result of $850,000 of debt incurred related to the cost of employee benefits. Bishop Armando Ochoa forgave $350,000 of that debt, but then more benefit payments came due, leaving an additional $600,000 still owed.
The grassroots campaign to cover the remaining debt started almost immediately after the diocese announced the impending closure of St. Helen’s, which opened 64 years ago.
“I looked at the kids and I did not want to be the one to tell them they were going to have to find a new school,” said Jason Garza, principal of St. Helen’s (he is not related to the pitcher). “I just said, ‘Nope, no way, it’s not going to happen.’ … I was confident somehow, some way, through faith, prayer – through the man upstairs – we were going to find a way to come through this.”
The message I heard over and over again from people who didn’t even have children in the school is this community needs this school. We need this here for our neighborhood.
Mona Faulkner, superintendent of Catholic schools
Teachers and staff at the school were recently laid off but will be brought back and won’t have to go through a rehiring process, said Mona Faulkner, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Fresno diocese. Faulkner said teachers were laid off because the teacher contract ended Wednesday and “we didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize the financial future” as the diocese works to put together a new budget based on student registration.
There were 206 students enrolled at St. Helen’s this year. There are 188 registered for the 2017-18 year, which starts Aug. 9, but Faulkner expects that number will grow.
Faulkner said teachers hired back will remain on the same “pay scale, where they would have been if it had been a continuous contract,” but also that some positions may need to be reconfigured from full-time to part-time, or part-time to full-time. The goal is to have everything in place by June 30.
“We hope everyone will come back,” Faulkner said. “We hope that’s what we can do. At this time, I can’t tell you exactly what their positions will look like.”
Faulkner said the school started accumulating debt nine years ago, before she or Bishop Armando Ochoa served the diocese, and that changes have been made to ensure such a problem doesn’t happen again.
“Beginning July 1, the cost of benefits will be automatically swept from every school’s account just like payroll is,” Faulkner said. “Our situation is a little different because our diocese is self-insured, so if they don’t make their benefits payments the diocese pays it – and then of course the school pays the diocese. Now it’s going to be treated like any other bill, it’s just an auto withdrawal that will come out every month so we won’t fall into this problem again.”
We have changed things significantly now, so this never happens again to another school.
Mona Faulkner, superintendent of Catholic schools
Ochoa continues to encourage concerned community members to help by making a donation to St. Helen’s.
“Good students are going to go back into the community,” Ochoa said. “I’m just thrilled that the opportunity is there, that these kids have walked that extra mile.”
Fuentes was among those leading the charge to help save the school. Two of his children are enrolled at St. Helen’s, and an older son in high school previously attended. Hearing of its impending closure was devastating news for his family.
“We want our children to grow up in the Catholic faith, and that’s where St. Helen’s comes into play,” Fuentes said. “That’s where we choose to go and we make the sacrifices.”
Garza did a lot of praying over the past year.
“I just woke up every morning and prayed for energy and enthusiasm, and that’s what I got, energy and enthusiasm to finish each day,” he said. “And the next day, I’d pray for that again.”
All the praying and fundraising paid off.
“It’s just a wonderful thing when a small community comes together and fights for one goal,” Jason Garza said. “That was truly what we were doing this entire year. We were fighting the good fight – not for myself, not for the staff – it was for the children.”
Joshua Tehee contributed. Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge