After Catholic school leaders protest, St. Paul adds private school families to COVID-19 effort

| April 6, 2020 | 0 Comments

Following protests from Catholic school leaders and others, the city of St. Paul is now including families with students in non-public schools among those eligible for a COVID-19-related relief effort: a one-time, $1,000 payment for emergency housing assistance.

Families must meet income guidelines and have lost income as people in St. Paul and across the state are ordered to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

At a special meeting April 1, the City Council, acting as the Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board, voted to allocate $3.25 million to the St. Paul Bridge Fund, with the goal of helping low-income families and small businesses. Philanthropic and economic partners added to the fund, which stands at $3.85 million. An earlier version of the proposal limited assistance to families with students in public schools.

Kevin Ferdinandt, headmaster of St. Agnes School in St. Paul, and 10 other leaders of Catholic schools in the city sent a letter March 30 to Mayor Melvin Carter and members of the HRA. “We ask that you set aside the school attendance requirement present in early drafts of the fund,” the letter said.

The assistance package now allows all eligible St. Paul families with at least one minor child to apply for assistance. Families must have gross household income at or below 40% of Twin Cities-area median income, or about $40,000 for a family of four, and have suffered a significant loss of income because of COVID-19.

“Some of our families have very low incomes and they need relief, and it can’t come soon enough,” Ferdinandt said.

“Some families send three children to our school and their family income in St. Paul is $25,000 a year,” he said. “They make sacrifices to pay some of their income to this Catholic school because they want their kids there. And they shouldn’t be discriminated against by the city of St. Paul just because they choose to send their kids to a private school.”

There is a misconception that private schools are exclusively places for the wealthy, and that those who attend pay full tuition, said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. “Many Catholic schools, for example, are financially fragile ministries that serve low-income families and communities,” he said.

Students often attend through special scholarships and the generosity of parishes, Adkins said. “Parents have determined that those schools are the best places for their child to flourish. Low-income families should not be punished because they have made that choice.”

Underperforming public schools also can face enrollment declines, Adkins said. Because money for public education follows the student, public schools benefit from higher enrollment. “Hence the need to incentivize public school attendance,” he said.

“But it is wrong, discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional to condition the reception of public benefits on sending your child to public school,” Adkins said.

Small businesses in St. Paul hit economically by the ripple effects of COVID-19 also can apply for Bridge Fund grants. School leaders asked the mayor and HRA to include nonprofit organizations, but details of the fund on the city’s website indicate businesses must be for-profit, independently owned and operate a retail-oriented business.

Ferdinandt said he was disappointed nonprofits were not included.

Adkins said COVID-19 grant programs that assist only for-profit businesses suffer from the misperception that they provide more benefit to the community as employers than nonprofit organizations. “Nonprofits may not pay taxes, but they employ people who often work for reduced salaries because of a dedication to serve the community,” he said.

“Furthermore, the nonprofit sector provides front-line services to the community that go undone, and for which the government may have to take responsibility if nonprofits close down,” Adkins said. “Assisting nonprofits during this time is an investment in the long-term well-being of our city.”

To learn more about the St. Paul Bridge Fund, go to St. Paul Bridge Fund. Families can apply online from April 8 to April 19; a lottery system will determine awardees from among eligible applicants.

A similar challenge is playing out in the city of Minneapolis. A proposal there would allocate up to $1 million in emergency housing stability funds to eligible families of students in all 39 of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ elementary schools.

The existing Stable Homes Stable Schools’ Housing Stability Fund provides one-time or short-term assistance to families experiencing homelessness or housing instability. It is being expanded to address COVID-19-related housing instability on an emergency basis.

Eligible families must have:

• At least one child enrolled in one of Minneapolis Public Schools’ 39 elementary schools

• Incomes at or below 50% of the Twin Cities-area median income

“We are concerned that all children who live in the city of Minneapolis have access to emergency funding during this time of crisis, including children in all non-public schools,” said Patricia Stromen, president of Ascension Catholic Academy.

The academy includes Ascension Catholic School and St. John Paul II Catholic School in Minneapolis, and St. Peter Claver Catholic School in St. Paul.

A vast majority of the families with children in the three schools live in poverty and might be eligible for the funds, Stromen said. “Access to any assistance during this crisis would be important to help them maintain stability and care for their families,” she said.

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