Public Response | “Setting the Record Straight”
August 1, 2020
Dear St. Vincent de Paul High School Community,
We hope this letter finds you well during this challenging time for health, education and safety, even without the misinformation that has been communicated to us, and spread about us.
As you may be aware, a public controversy has arisen following the restructuring of our school staff in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a visit to the White House by SVHS representatives, including Principal Daly, a faculty member (who is a physician), a current student and a parent. From its inception, this current controversy has been based on misinformation, false statements and hearsay. For these reasons, we feel a responsibility to provide the following facts.
There was no intention to align the school or any of its staff or students with any national political figure or party. Our school representatives were invited to a symposium of national experts as a result of their outstanding efforts to research and resolve problems in opening schools during the current pandemic. Simply stated, they went to Washington not to pay court to any person, but to share with the country their knowledge and experience. Our school sophomore who addressed the entire White House symposium was the only high school student in the U.S. designated to speak of his experience and hopes for the future. We feel that we would have been remiss to have passed on the opportunity to meet with world renowned experts in infectious diseases, youth health and school administration.
While we respect anyone’s right to social action, we must assert the facts surrounding recent changes at SVHS in the face of what appear to be ill-informed conclusions. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.
Our duty is to make decisions that are in the best interests of our students and protect the health and safety of our school community. Our school is run first for the benefit of students and families, not administrators, faculty and staff. Over the past several weeks, we have convened a teacher-driven, cross-functional team to work on student-focused solutions to COVID- and budget-related challenges in an effort to determine the best course of action for our high school community.
Like schools across the country, we are not immune to the costs associated with implementing health and safety measures required under COVID, while enduring cuts in funding. And like all schools, we have had to deal with the financial impact of keeping our community safe, including a 45% increase in maintenance costs for repeated cleaning and sanitizing of the campus, plus up to $85,000 for necessary engineered controls and personal protective equipment such as plexiglass shield dividers, hand washing stations, hand sanitizer pumps, masks, and COVID signage. Claims that anyone at SVHS regards the COVID pandemic as anything less than a serious threat to the health and safety of our families and communities are completely false.
Over the past three months, we have consulted repeatedly with the Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Santa Rosa, the Parish Finance Chair, our accountants, and the advisory Board of Regents to discuss the financial challenges of these unprecedented times. As school leaders, it is our shared responsibility to ensure the financial health of our school, while keeping tuition as affordable as possible to all families, many students are on school-financed financial aid. As such, we made the difficult but unanimous decision to restructure in such a way as to minimize any possible impact on the day-to-day educational experience of our students.
Unfortunately, this translated into staff reductions, the reassignment of responsibilities for certain positions, the freezing of all salaries and increases, reducing some teaching sections, and the reduction of the administrative staff from three deans to one. Personnel decisions are never taken lightly but, in this situation, were unavoidable. As difficult as these cuts have been, they are far less severe than those in most other private economic sectors in the real world. We recognize the contributions of the affected staff and thank them for their service to our school and students.
These difficult decisions were not made in a vacuum nor impulsively in reaction to any event. These decisions emerged over the span of several months with input from confidential sources, including human resource advisors, finance advisors, key members of the Board of Regents and legal counsel. This was the product of weeks of careful thought and consultation, based on nothing other than declining revenues, rising costs – and then only as a last resort.
The staff positions the protesters are focusing on were eliminated out of budgetary necessity, and were not filled by other people. The Physical Education position was removed for the 2020-21 school year, due to the fact that there will be no PE classes for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic. The remaining functions were assumed by other existing staff, not new hires, based on academic degrees and skill sets. The four affected employees – all of whom were hired by the current administration – were not singled out due to race or any other form of invidious discrimination. Please be assured that SVHS prohibits all forms of illegal discrimination, including racial discrimination. Please further be assured that race had nothing to do with the difficult personnel decisions that had to be made to face the declining enrollment and COVID crisis. Personnel matters are by law, confidential, and cannot be discussed publicly.
Last year, a third-party therapeutic counseling organization was engaged to provide mental health counseling services to SVHS students in 2019 and remains under contract for the 2020-2021 school year, though the need for on-campus counseling is reduced because the campus is closed. In response to feedback from SVHS parents, our academic counseling services transitioned to a more robust, student-focused model which pairs students with an experienced faculty member during each of their four years at SVHS.
St. Vincent de Paul High School is committed to creating and maintaining a campus atmosphere that is emotionally safe and welcoming for all students and faculty. The fact that 41% of our current student body, and over 23% of our current faculty and staff, are non-white supports that. (Even with the recent reductions, our faculty and staff are 10% black, many times the percentage in the local community.) We are not sure how protests at the school and church will make students and families feel safer.
Many signers of the online petition criticizing the school claim to be alumni. As alumni, they might know that SVHS has programs and initiatives intended to help create a safe and inclusive environment. Our student-initiated and student-led Anti-Discrimination Club is one such example. In addition, our recently formed, parent-led committee on Diversity, Equality and Inclusivity (DEI) is also a testament to our commitment to providing a safe and welcoming environment for all families. In that spirit, we will continue to strive to do more and do better.
Contrary to many inaccurate public statements, over the past two years, the current administration has guided the school to its highest level of ethnic diversity in the school’s history. Upon our arrival in 2017, there were no Black students enrolled. After the first full year of purposeful effort, our incoming freshman class included 11% Black students and the overall diversity of our student body increased to 41% non-white. According to the latest data, the ratio of Black students in the last incoming class at SVHS to Black people in the surrounding community is roughly 18:1.
We have made great progress at goals our critics claim to share, and our increased diversity under the current administration proves it. The school is run first for the benefit of the students enrolled. Unfortunately, not only do their online communications present a false narrative from beginning to end and lack all of the relevant facts, they are directly counterfactual. As previously noted, we are forbidden by law to discuss personnel matters – a fact which is now being cynically exploited.
All principal parties to this discussion have been available all summer, yet our critics never took the trouble to verify their assertions before going to the media and anyone online who would listen.
We hear from many current parents and students – notably our Black parents – who are best placed to know the school today, and who find this protest effort a gross misrepresentation of their families’ experience with our school. The overwhelming number of alumni, parents and students have been quietly supportive. They want for their children and grandchildren the same education alumni critics received and now feign to appreciate only when it serves them. However, our supporters simply will not engage with overtly political and inaccurate claims because those who do, are viciously attacked. Anyone who interprets their reserve as acquiescence, let alone agreement, is greatly mistaken.
We thank you for your partnership in helping us to educate your children in a healthy, safe and welcoming environment for all students. We are working daily to serve your families and to earn and keep your trust.
Rev. William P. Donahue
Pastor & President
SVHS Class of ’76
Patrick W. Daly