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Pinellas Catholic school reverses voucher-based tuition hike

Parent concerns played a role in the decision, St. Paul officials said
 
St. Paul Catholic School, 1900 12th Street North, on Tuesday, May 30, 2023 in St. Petersburg.
St. Paul Catholic School, 1900 12th Street North, on Tuesday, May 30, 2023 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published June 12, 2023|Updated June 12, 2023

A Pinellas County private school that planned to raise its tuition rates to take advantage of state-funded vouchers has done an about-face.

St. Paul Catholic School in St. Petersburg sent a letter to families on June 4 telling them it will return to the charges it had announced in January, instead of imposing increases of $4,000 to $5,000 per student. The move came days after the Tampa Bay Times detailed the school’s plans encouraging all parents to apply for vouchers, which no longer carry income eligibility requirements, as a way to boost its budget.

“After careful consideration and taking into account various factors, including the feedback expressed by our families, ... as well as advice from the Diocese of St. Petersburg, we are reverting to our originally scheduled tuition rates,” Principal Brendan Butcher and the Rev. Robert Gibbons wrote in their letter, which the diocese provided to the Times on Monday.

Several parents contacted the school to register their displeasure with the 60% price hike, which also would have pushed tuition above the average amount a state voucher is expected to cover. About 240 of the school’s approximately 300 students did not previously receive vouchers.

The move also generated disdain from voucher critics, who expressed dismay but not surprise that a private school would charge more as it gained greater access to taxpayer funding.

One such critic was Norín Dollard of Florida Policy Institute, who repeatedly called on lawmakers to put financial safeguards on the voucher program to ensure that its cost would not hurt district public schools.

Dollard said she was “amazed” that St. Paul heard the pushback and changed course.

“It’s good they’re responding to parents. That’s what we want all schools to do,” she said. “But it doesn’t fix the fundamental issue with vouchers.”

Several private schools throughout Florida will continue to charge fees in excess of the voucher amount, she said, essentially keeping them out of the reach of students whose families cannot afford the difference. In many ways, she said, that benefits families already paying for private schooling.

Families at St. Paul who apply for vouchers under the new rules now could end up with $1,000 to $2,000 to use for other educational expenses after covering tuition, depending on the final voucher amount.

Christopher Pastura, superintendent of diocese schools, said all Catholic schools are attempting to adapt to Florida’s changing landscape of school finances, and facing a variety of logistical challenges. He said St. Paul leadership was no different than the others.

In their letter, Butcher and Gibbons assured families that their school remained committed to making improvements that it had intended to make with the tuition increase, including teacher pay raises, enhanced security and infrastructure improvements.

“We will continue to invest the necessary resources to provide a faith-filled, academically rigorous and supportive environment for students,” they wrote. “However, we will now need to seek an even greater level of dedicated commitment from our families to support these endeavors.”

They again encouraged families to apply for vouchers, and said they would offer tuition assistance to any student who has demonstrated financial need.

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