Parents' burden concerns schools


POSTED: Sunday, November 23, 2008
This story has been corrected. See below.

When Aloha Airlines shut down in the spring, laid-off workers whose children attended Mid-Pacific Institute had bad news for school President Joe Rice.

“;What do we do? We have no paycheck,”; Rice said he heard from 32 families who suddenly could no longer pay the $16,000 tuition.

At Sacred Hearts Academy, administrators reached for a waiting list to fill 20 vacancies created over the summer after parents pulled their children from the Catholic school for girls.

Hoala School in Wahiawa was slapped with a foreclosure complaint last week for allegedly falling behind on a mortgage at one of its campuses.

The gloomy economy has brought private schools a troubling equation: Enrollment has tapered, more parents want financial aid, and endowments that fund tuition aid have been hit by the Wall Street meltdown.

It's all forcing administrators to rethink how much to increase tuition next year to keep up with inflation while offering competitive salaries to top teachers. The cost of private education has gone up about 30 percent in the past decade, rising about 3 percent over inflation annually, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.

However, now - more than ever - officials face the delicate task of minimizing the financial burden on parents without watering down instruction, several private school administrators told the Star-Bulletin.

“;Our fear is that we want to have enough children in the classrooms so that we don't have to get into cost-cutting by reducing staff or classes,”; said Bernard Ho, president of Damien Memorial School.

Enrollment at the all-boys Catholic school is down 50 students to 530 children. More than one in three Damien students is on financial aid, and Ho expects more families will seek help to afford tuition that jumped 5.76 percent to $9,175 for high-schoolers this year.

“;Generally these are parents that have more than one child,”; he said.

Nationally, private school enrollment, which has seen healthy, steady growth in recent years, remained flat on average this year as some schools lost and others gained students, said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools. She attributed the slowdown in part to a drop in the population of school-age children.

The economy's toll on private schools won't be known until the spring, when application deadlines expire and contract renewals are usually due, or until the start of the 2009-10 academic year, when enrollment figures are finalized, McGovern noted.

Still, financial aid applications filed for the current school year jumped 6,000 from 140,000 a year earlier through one program administered by the association, she said.

At Le Jardin Windward Academy, where enrollment is stable, headmaster Adrian Allan believes parents will place their child's education at the top of the budget, ahead of travel or a new car.

The 785-student school, which has spent $20 million to build 18 classrooms and a gymnasium, is hoping to lure parents with the International Baccalaureate program it expects to launch next year.

“;We think that program gives us an edge,”; Allan said. “;When parents see hard times ahead, they know it's going to be harder for their kids to compete, and therefore you want to invest in those kids' education so they stand a better chance of getting the jobs.”;

He likened pulling a student out of private school to losing a home that is almost paid off.

“;It's like owning your house, paying off the mortgage for 15 years and then going into foreclosure,”; Allan said.

School quality is what led Carol Kuboyama of Honolulu to switch her daughter from public to private school after sixth grade. She said her child, now an eighth-grader, gets more individual attention at St. Andrew's Priory in a class with a 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio.

But with tuition reaching $12,960 this year - an 8 percent hike from a year ago - and pricey textbooks and other activity fees mounting, Kuboyama worries.

“;It's kind of hard,”; Kuboyama said. “;I'm not sure how much longer my family can help out.”;

Perhaps the toughest challenge facing private schools is finding ways to assist financially strapped parents when endowments are getting “;pummeled”; by the economy, McGovern said.

A number of Hawaii schools also are concerned about thinning alumni contributions.

“;People aren't giving as freely,”; said Patrick Bullard, alumni spokesman for Saint Louis School, where enrollment dipped slightly to 715 students this year. “;That's probably going to be the case until people recoup some of the money they lost in the stock market.”;

At Holy Trinity School, school lunch sales are falling as more students bring food from home, and fundraisers have drawn fewer participants, said Principal Sister Rose Miriam Schillinger.

The small school, located between Niu Valley and Kuliouou and which serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, is in a difficult situation. While enrollment shrunk to 90 students from about 100 last year, officials might be forced to raise the $5,250 tuition to $7,000 because of surging electricity costs and phone bills.

That could hurt the school's plan to put on a big party for its 50th anniversary on Sept. 9.

“;They (the parents) say, 'Unless we get financial aid, we probably will not come back,'”; Schillinger said.

That was the fate for some of the Aloha Airlines workers who lost their jobs and their ability to keep their children at Mid-Pac this year. When those parents asked Rice to help their children finish the last few months of the school year, officials shifted funds toward its financial aid budget, allowing them to stay.

But when the fall semester began, not all of them returned, and enrollment sank by 30 students.

“;The greater majority of those were economics kind of concerns,”; Rice said.

Financial aid inquiries for the coming school year at Mid-Pac have swelled 25 percent. Those already getting assistance, meanwhile, have been asking for more relief - something Rice called “;unusual.”;

Mid-Pac is exploring postponing staff travel or maintenance projects to offset tuition expenses for families, though Rice acknowledges even that might not be enough for some.

“;If you are losing your job, it doesn't matter how much value you are getting out of the education. You are going to be hard-pressed to put it before food, or before your mortgage payment,”; he said. “;We'll be trying to work with families to see how we can make it work for everyone to the best of our abilities. But it will not be easy.”;






        » Holy Trinity School is located between Niu Valley and Kuliouou. A story on Page A10 in Sunday's paper incorrectly said it was in Aina Haina.