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St. Ed’s adjusts to challenging times
BY MILTON R. BENJAMIN - STAFF WRITER (Week of October 29, 2009)

Faced with the reality of challenging economic times and slumping enrollment, St. Edward’s School has decided to proactively take a giant step into the future by adopting a more selective admissions policy, shrinking the size of the school, selling the historic Riomar Lower School and moving all grades onto the south A1A campus, and aggressively proceeding with a fi ve-year plan to retire all debt.

“We are going to get where we need to go to be that great independent school in this region,” said head of school Michael Mersky, who joined St. Ed’s only six months ago. “This plan will ensure that we are here to serve families and children for generations to come.”

The plan, fi rst presented to members of the St. Ed’s faculty and staff at a meeting this past Monday, was subsequently outlined in a letter that families of students started receiving on Tuesday. The plan calls for:

■ Reducing enrollment over the next couple of years by 10 to 20 percent from the current 728 students, and then holding it at that level.

■ Closing the Lower School in Riomar, probably at the end of the current school year, and selling the property.

■ Moving the Lower School into what is currently the Middle School on the south campus.

■ Moving the Middle School into a retrofi tted building on the northwest quadrant of the south campus.

■ Limiting annual increases in tuition to approximately 4 percent.

■ Reducing the fi nancial aid currently offered to students to a level that is sustainable.

■ Increasing faculty compensation.

■ Negotiating a plan with a bank by the end of January 2010 to retire the school’s $15 million in debt over the next five years.

All of these steps – which Mersky sums up as “constriction, conservation and consolidation” – are going to “strengthen St. Ed’s core – our own school design.”

While the school expects to get down to an enrollment of between 580 and 650 over the next two years, Mersky says admissions to the smaller St. Ed’s will become “signifi cantly more competitive.”

“It’s no secret that St. Ed’s enrollment has been declining,” he said. “Now, we are going to create our own smaller learning community. And in the next three to fi ve years, St. Ed’s will become as strong as it has ever been.”

As part of this reduction in enrollment, Mersky said St. Ed’s would be cutting back on the amount of fi - nancial aid it currently provides to students unable to afford the private school’s tuition.

“We intend to proceed with the fi - nancial aid commitment we have made to our older students,” he said. “But we need to constrict overall fi - nancial aid to a level that better refl ects independent school norms and is sustainable.”

He declined to provide numbers on how many students currently are on scholarship, or the extent to which this may be cut back.

One part of the plan that no doubt will cause some twinges of nostalgia among St. Ed’s estimated 2,000 alumni is the decision to vacate the Lower School building in Riomar, where St. Edward’s opened in renovated facilities of the old Riomar Club in 1965.

In recent years, this oak-shrouded facility on the edge of the Riomar County Club golf course has housed an estimated 220 pupils in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

After the Lower School pupils are relocated to the south campus – probably next September, but possibly not until after the Christmas break – the prime real estate will be sold. “Our hope is we can get in the area of $4 million for the property,” Mersky said.

The current plan calls for the Lower School pupils to move to what is now the Middle School building, which will be renovated next summer. “It will be perfect for the Lower School,” Mersky said. The lower grades will be on the ground floor of the two-story building, with grades three to five on the second floor.

“But I know all the things that can go wrong with construction,” Mersky said. “If we need extra time, we will move the Lower School at midyear. The key is to do this well.”

In the course of an interview with Vero Beach 32963, Mersky repeatedly talked of the strengths of a smaller school – and said once the school size had stabilized at its new level, there would be no immediate growth.

In the Lower School, for example, he said that while St. Ed’s currently has three sections in some grades, it intends to “go to two sections in all grades.”

The strategic plan that led to these decisions is the result of an intense year of work by the school’s Board of Trustees chaired by Ron Edwards. “The Board and I have worked feverishly since June,” Mersky said. The fi ve-year fi nancial model was approved by the Board of Trustees on September 16.

“The plan itself is very realistic,” Mersky said. “Our goal is to consolidate as we go into next year. It will make us a more selective and stronger school. One of the things we want to do is be great stewards of our own resources. Ultimately, we may grow again – but it will be with a strategic mission tied to it.

“We want to be the independent school of choice.”