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Catholic Life Education

Dr. LaFever bids adieu to Catholics Schools

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When the final bell rang on Oct. 20, Michael LaFever left his office for the last time to embrace retirement. As superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Buffalo, he spent more than two years leading parish and regional elementary schools in Western New York. His main focus now will be heading the charity he founded last year, the Catholic Children’s Learning Corporation.

Joan D. Thomas, who has nearly five decades of experience as an educator, principal and superintendent for two Western New York school districts, has now assumed LaFever’s former position on interim basis.

The superintendent’s role is to provide leadership to the schools to help them maintain a vibrant and financially solvent educational institute, as well as provide guidance to the principals, pastors and school boards.

Catholic Schools is the third largest school district in Western New York with 8,600 students. The nine-member Catholic Schools Department staff oversees government mandates, professional development and technology for 34 Catholic schools. This frees up the teachers and principals to focus on carrying out their education programs.

“Our principals in our schools, they’re going 100 miles an hour just to run the school, but they can’t do all the other professional work that we would do for them, that any other public school would provide to their schools – curriculum writing, instructional support, technology support, grant writing, legal issues,” said LaFever.

Thomas has agreed to stay until May 1. Her first order of business will be to meet with canonical administrators of regional schools, as well as principals of struggling schools, to see where they see themselves at present, in the next year, and in the next five years.

“I think one of my main focuses is to try to come up with ways that these schools can be viable beyond five years,” said Thomas. “One of my main goals has been to try and understand the financial situation of the schools and try to figure out whether a school or schools need to be merged or perhaps consolidated or perhaps restructured, or, in worse case scenarios, perhaps closed because they just can’t sustain themselves without diocesan support.”

Thomas recognizes the hard work of the principals to make their schools competitive with government-funded public schools. In a 2019 Business First ranking, 10 Catholic schools placed among the top 50 schools in Western New York.

Very poor public schools will get from the state upwards of 90 percent reimbursed state aid, Thomas explained. If a school wanted to start a new program, such as STREAM, it would receive $90 from the state for every $100 spent. Wealthier districts may only receive 30 percent in aid.

“(Catholic schools) don’t get any. We get no state aid. Catholic schools are on their own as to how to fund initiatives. When you say we have schools in the Top 10 that compete right up there with an Amherst, that’s a credit to the teachers and the principals because they are the ones doing all the work,” she said.

Thomas will have some obstacles to deal with, most notably the fact that the Diocese of Buffalo, currently under Chapter 11 reorganization has stopped financial support of the parish and regional schools.

In a statement last July, Sister Mary McCarrick, chief operating officer of the diocese, explained the financial issue. “As a diocese, we face significant financial challenges that also constrict the ability of our parish and school leaders to make the investments they need and desire in the interests of their students. It is why we are looking at new models that will ensure the continuation of Catholic education across our region despite these present challenges. We are committed to innovation, collaboration and most especially, to our shared mission of perpetuating the proud tradition of Catholic education throughout Western New York for decades to come,” she wrote.

Diocesan leaders are working with parishes and schools to identify ways to better collaborate and create greater impact by combining resources and harnessing the abundant expertise, talent and zeal of the teachers, administrators, parish leaders and Catholic faithful.

Even in retirement, LaFever will remain committed to doing his part for Catholic education. His charity, the Catholic Children’s Learning Corporation, is designed to help support Catholic Schools by generating funds that will pay for the costs of running the schools, not tuition assistance like other local organizations.

“The charity is designed to generate income for Catholic education,” LaFever explained. “It was deliberately structured in a way that it would not be in competition with BISON Fund or the Foundation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. Our primary source of income is not donations. It’s not that we would reject donations, it’s just not what we’re focused on. We’re focused on creating an income for the schools.”

He compares the idea to religious orders earning money through the colleges and hospitals that they own. This, he said, will help small schools in rural areas with low enrollment to stay open.

“That’s what makes this charity different,” he said. “We’re looking into investing in real estate or running small businesses. We’re looking at research and development. We’re looking at different fields where we can invest and create an income stream for the schools in the future.”

Retiring superintendent of Catholic Schools Michael LaFever welcomes the new interim School Superintendent Joan Thomas.
Patrick McPartland/Managing Editor

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