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In lean times, Hillsborough families make sacrifices to keep kids in private schools

Students at Hillsborough County's private schools might notice a few empty seats when classes resume next month.

There might be one teacher aide per class instead of two, or two guidance counselors in the office instead of three.

Or the teaching ranks might be the same, with teachers working without a pay raise.

Private schools are weighing these and other steps to cope with a recession that has many families struggling to pay those whopping tuition bills.

"We are seeing more families in need of financial aid," said Cathy Hamilton, director of admissions at Hillel School of Tampa, which charges $11,000 a year for all grades past pre-kindergarten.

"There are families that we'd like to be able to give more money to."

In Brandon, Nativity Catholic School parent Andrea Cseh hears rumors of withdrawals.

But she and her friends are determined to stay put, even if they have to sacrifice other household expenditures.

"It will be the last hill we die on, for lack of a better expression," said Cseh, 43. "Gosh, it's so worth it."

Holding steady

Five years ago, close to 12 percent of Hillsborough County's schoolchildren attended private schools, according to the Florida Department of Education.

For the past two years, that number has hovered around 8 percent, a product of both the economy and a proliferation of high-end magnet programs in the public schools.

Still, Hillsborough schools are faring relatively well, said Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools. Statewide, re-enrollment was 80 percent this past spring, well below the usual numbers in the high 90s, with Hillsborough schools among the strongest, he said.

What remains to be seen is how many parents will go through with their commitment once the school year begins.

"You might sign a contract and put down a $1,000 deposit," he said. "But suppose one parent loses a job in the summer. It's a tough decision."

Administrators are counting on parents who make education their top priority.

"My father worked overtime, for the railroad. My mother, a legal secretary, also worked overtime," said Heather Mackin, a Berkeley Preparatory School graduate who now works as the school's communications director.

"To them, that's the importance of a Berkeley education. We get it."

Founded in 1960, Berkeley benefits from a strong alumni association and fundraisers such as last year's Shades of Blue auction and gala, which raised $230,000. A golf tournament at Westchase brought in $35,000, Mackin said. That helps when families cannot afford tuition that runs from $15,000 to $18,000 a year.

Hillel similarly is trying to plan fundraisers that will appeal to the community at large rather than just the student population of about 180. Last year, the school sponsored a $100-a-plate brunch honoring Cable News Network host Larry King.

Where fundraisers fall short, schools will need to fine-tune their budgets, Bliss said. Salaries gobble up 60 to 90 percent of the money, which means employees might face pay freezes — or even a lost job here and there — while tuition continues to rise.

In Carrollwood, Independent Day School headmaster Joyce Swarzman would not indulge in speculation about the economy.

"People will always want to invest in a quality education," she said. "I think people are more careful and more selective. But they still desire to make sure their children receive all the benefits that an independent school can give them."

As for her school's budget, she said, "We are just more careful about where we spend our money."

Several scenarios

Writing for his association magazine, National Association of Independent Schools president Patrick Bassett laid out these possible scenarios for enrollment budgets and donations: 3 to 5 percent change in normal times, a 10 to 20 percent decrease if the recession worsens, or, most likely, revenue and enrollment shrinking between 5 and 10 percent.

But, he added, looking back over the last six recessions, donations dropped only slightly and temporarily. Enrollment remained stable, with a spike in financial aid making that possible.

"During the last two recessions, discretionary spending on education actually rose," Bassett wrote. "Families tend to cut out everything else before they take their kids out of schools where their children are well-matched."

That's how Cseh feels about sending her two children, ages 3 and 6, to Nativity in Brandon, which charges $4,000 to $7,000 per child, depending on parish affiliation.

"For me, our reasons are religious," she said. "It reinforces what our faith is at home."

She also enjoys the strong sense of community, and the rarity of the kinds of behavior problems that exist in public schools.

Cseh, the wife of a self-employed builder, said, "We've taken a huge hit. Our kids take their lunches. My husband takes his own lunch. We fill coolers with water so we don't have to buy bottled water. We don't go to Starbucks as often.

"I'm a stay-at-home mom," she said. "But I have always said that if I had to go to work to cover their tuition, I would."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or [email protected]

In lean times, Hillsborough families make sacrifices to keep kids in private schools 07/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009 4:30am]
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