Question: When was the last time any school announced it would be lowering its tuition?

Answer:Never?”until now.

Yes, that’s exactly what St. Barbara School in Brookfield is doing for the 2005-06 school year. In addition, the school is reaching out to public school families, offering them a significantly discounted tuition for up to three years.

By lowering the cost of a Catholic school education, St. Barbara officials are hoping to attract more students in an era when the Chicago archdiocese is closing schools based in part on enrollment numbers.

“Enrollment is down and the archdiocese is closing schools all over the place,” said Kevin Paloucek, school board president of St. Barbara. “We felt we needed to do something different, because whatever everybody else was doing was not working.”

And while Principal Janet Erazmus said that St. Barbara has never been threatened with closure by the archdiocese, the school’s board and Family School Association have worked out the tuition reduction as a way to make St. Barbara an attractive option to a wider number of people.

“[A possible closure] wasn’t the reason why we did this,” said Erazmus, who has been principal at St. Barbara for 14 years. “Parents are grateful that we see that it is, in fact, expensive and we have addressed that.”

St. Barbara currently has 183 students in grades Pre-K through 8, and has always hovered around the 200-student mark, according to Erazmus. The school has always done fundraising to help increase revenues and receives an 18 percent subsidy from the parish.

By lowering tuition Erazmus said the school hopes to attract 20 to 25 new students. Eleven new students have already registered for next year.

Under the new guidelines, tuition for one student would fall 19 percent from $3,510 in 2004-05 to $2,850 in 2005-06. Similarly, the tuition cost for two students would be $4,980 versus $6,010 this year, a 17-percent drop. Meanwhile, the cost for three students would drop 17 percent from $8,120 to $6,700.

When asked how the school could afford such a drop in tuition dollars, Paloucek said that the school has done aggressive fundraising in recent years and that those dollars will be focused on making up the difference in tuition funding rather than on capital improvements.

In recent years, fundraisers have made possible the purchase of new desks for the entire school, a renovation of the lunchroom/basement, new windows and an upcoming renovation of the gymnasium.

The new tuition plan is also not expected to negatively impact the school’s subsidy from the parish, according to Paloucek.

“We budgeted the subsidy for 18 percent, and it may actually turn out to be less,” he said.

Paloucek said that the board met with archdiocesan representatives to run the tuition plan by them and received their support for the plan.

In an ambitious attempt to court public school parents, St. Barbara is offering a one-student tuition rate of $1,500 per year for three years for public school transferees. The school has been marketing the tuition discount through its religious education (CCD) program for public school students.

“Hopefully this will be an incentive so that they will be able to come here,” Erazmus said. “We’ve had a lot of people coming through to shadow [students].”

Paloucek said that the school board called a mandatory meeting for all school parents when the new plan was announced. When told that the school would be reaching out to parents outside the St. Barbara family with a discounted tuition rate, there were some skeptics.

“We said, here’s what we will do for you, now let’s make this better for everybody,” Paloucek said. “We have 250 kids in our religious education program, that more than we have in the whole school.”

The tuition breaks have also been marketed to Catholic schools that were recently designated for closure by the archdiocese such as Mater Christi in North Riverside. Erazmus said the school has received interest from some Mater Christi families and from soon-to-be-former families of Our Lady of the Mount in Cicero, St. Mary of Celle in Berwyn and even St. Philomena on Chicago’s Northwest Side.