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St. Edward’s presses ambitious fund-raising effort
BY MICHELLE GENZ - STAFF WRITER (Week of November 5, 2009)

St. Edward’s School, in an effort to turn all attention to the future and get beyond the debt overhang from the massive building program undertaken in 1999, has launched one of the most ambitious fund-raising efforts the Vero barrier island has recently seen.

The goal of this effort is to complete the Pirate Fund campaign to raise $13 million in pledges by the end of this coming January — instead of December of next year, as originally contemplated. The Pirate Fund was launched last spring and has thus far raised $7.2 million in gross pledges, to be paid out over a fi ve year timeline.

That means that in only 12 weeks, new head master Michael Mersky, Board of Trustees Chairman Ron Edwards, and other St. Ed’s board members and parents must convince donors who have not already signed on to pledge an amount approximately equal to the millions already committed.

Given that those who presumably were the most likely givers have already pledged millions, that would appear to be a daunting challenge. But the St. Ed’s leadership is determined to make this happen.

“The School’s debt must, and will, be put behind us,” Mersky and Edwards said in a letter to parents unveiling the new fi ve-year strategic plan. “Our goal is to have the resources in place prior to re-enrollment contracts being mailed this coming February 2010 for the next academic year. “

“The Board of Trustees as leaders, along with the Head of School and Advancement Team, has been working diligently to garner the resources so that all, including our bank, will agree on the ‘debt-relief plan’ by the end of January.”

Since June, Mersky has been searching for donors in Vero Beach and beyond. In a few cases, when prospective donors were away for the off-season, he has travelled to meet with them at their second homes. Now as winter residents return, his campaign for pledges redoubles, even as he adjusts to his fi rst semester as head of school.

“There is no doubt that it has been a challenge to raise funds for debt relief in such a short period of time,” Mersky said. “However, the defi ned and abbreviated time period has created a focus within this School community, and our recent successes would suggest that our constituents and others in the larger region know the importance of having our School move forward with a plan to put the debt behind us.”

The news that the fund-raising effort was being dramatically accelerated was largely lost in the announcement a week ago of the school’s plans to reposition itself for the future.

Initial attention tended to focus on plans to consolidate the Lower School with the Upper School on the South A1A campus, and sell off the school’s quaint 5.7-acre Riomar campus – a decision that provoked more nostalgia than protest from parents.

At a meeting with Mersky last Thursday night, parents seemed by and large relieved to hear of the new strategic plan to assure the school’s future, according to those at the meeting. School offi cials and parent leaders say reaction was judged to be positive regarding the plan to consolidate campuses, cap tuition hikes, cut fi nancial aid and plan for smaller enrollment.

But the urgency of bringing the Pirate Fund drive to an early and successful conclusion was made clear to the point that parents have been calling Anne Storch, director of advancement, asking how they can help. “I’ve got a meeting this afternoon with parents of a pre-K student with another one at home,” Storch said Monday. “They love St. Ed’s and they want to know how they can help. It’s rare that parents call me. Usually I’m calling them.”

The sale of the Lower School campus is not likely to ease the school’s immediate fund-raising challenge since any new owner could not take possession until the start of the next school year, at the earliest, officials say.

So that leaves Mersky, Edwards and others to press on with the Pirate Fund to retire the $15.3 debt incurred when St. Edward’s school undertook a massive re-do in 1999.

“We just don’t want it hanging over our heads,” says Storch. “If people are waiting to give, this lets them know they can’t wait any longer.”

Launched last February by Edwards, Lorne Waxlax, Matt Gafton and Bill Becker, the Pirate Fund raised $5 million dollars in pledges in the fi rst three months of its existence. But momentum apparently subsequently fl agged. In the subsequent six months, coinciding with the off-season, crusaders for the fund managed to raise another $2.2 million.

On a net present value basis, that translates to less than half of the $13 million needed, according to Edwards, newly appointed chairman and former long-time treasurer of the St. Edward’s Board of Trustees. Edwards is president and CEO of Evans Properties, a prominent local citrus firm.

With many beach residents absent for the summer season, Edwards and Mersky have targeted alumni and families living in Vero full-time. But the fund-raising rate has slowed to a fraction of its original pace.

According to the contract with donors, if the balance of funds is not raised by Dec. 31, 2010, the pledges expire. At that point, the only way to salvage donations to the fund would be to convince the bank – Wells Fargo, formerly Wachovia, which wrote the school a letter of credit for a bond for the renovation – to negotiate on the remaining debt.

Now, those negotiations would take place in January.