JEFFERSON CITY — The leader of mid-Missouri’s Catholics thinks he’s got a problem: Columbia’s Fr. Tolton Catholic High School.
One week before Wednesday’s announcement that a second top Tolton leader is on the way out, Bishop Shawn McKnight told the Columbia Missourian he’s worried about the 8-year-old high school’s high debt and low enrollment.
“It has had a very difficult time ever since it was founded,” McKnight said. “The debt that we’re still carrying from when we built it is an enormous problem, and I need to deal with that.”
In a wide-ranging interview about his personal interests and professional goals, the relatively new bishop — McKnight was installed in his post in February 2018 — gave no hint of the impending news that Tolton Principal Gwen Roche is leaving at year’s end.
But the bishop, who in October fired Tolton President Doug Callahan just two months after signing off on his hiring, expressed concern about “instability” within Tolton’s faculty “actually going all the way back to its founding.”
McKnight refused to discuss the reasons for Callahan’s dismissal, describing it as a “personnel matter,” but Callahan himself said he was fired. Roche’s departure was announced in a diocesan press release that said she was not renewing her contract. Roche declined to elaborate.
Tolton has had five presidents since it opened:
And the current interim, Jill McIntosh.
The school holds a debt of $6.2 million, according to Helen Osman, director of diocesan communications. Most of that amount — around $5.9 million — represents the cost of building the new campus on Gans Road, just off U.S. 63.
“Tolton is a relatively new school, so it’s not unusual for it be carrying debt related to the construction of the facilities,” Osman said in an email. “We have been blessed with donors and parishioners who understand the value of Catholic education and want to invest in it.”
But Callahan, the most recent ex-president, told the Missourian in an interview Wednesday that the long-term debt “puts a financial pressure on an annual basis because interest has to be paid.”
“Hopefully, the increased enrollment will release the pressure,” Callahan added.
Asked to name some of the challenges facing Tolton, aside from the debt, McKnight didn’t hesitate; “Recruitment,” he quickly interjected. “We need more students.”
The school currently has an enrollment of 252 and an average class size of 19. By comparison, Columbia Public Schools has an enrollment of more than 18,000. This year, the district’s four high schools will graduate more than 1,200 seniors.
McKnight said he hired Callahan because he was recommended by the presidential advisory committee at the school. He said it was a “difficult decision” to ask him to leave.
In Wednesday’s news release, the diocese announced that it is hiring Partners in Mission to help it search for Tolton’s new leadership. The release said that could be a president and principal, or a “head of school,” a post that would combine both roles. McKnight said in the release that he’s committed to having “a vibrant Catholic high school in Columbia, the largest city in our diocese.”
In the interview with the Missourian a week before, he outlined some of the qualities he will be looking for.
“A leader at a Catholic High School is someone who knows the mission and understands that it is a school that is founded as part of the mission of the church,” McKnight said. “The Catholic identity of the school has to be front and center.”
He indicated that he has always seen Tolton as a school in need of rehabilitation.
“When I arrived here, I quickly understood some of the challenges that are facing Father Tolton High School,” McKnight said. “But also, I’m aware of how necessary it is for the Catholic Church in Columbia.”
Callahan, who has deep roots in the Catholic community locally, agreed with the bishop, saying, “I wish Tolton High School success because it’s very important for the Catholic and Columbia community as a whole to have a viable Catholic school.”
McKnight currently oversees 95 parishes, 15 missions, 77 diocesan priests, three Catholic high schools and 37 Catholic elementary schools. He said he wants to expand Catholic education in mid-Missouri.
“I want to strengthen the ability of our parish churches to embrace Catholic education as part of their mission, not just the responsibility of the parents,” he said. “I would like to lower the cost of tuition to the Catholic high schools so it becomes more affordable and more accessible to more people (who) want to participate in Catholic education.”
The bishop has a special passion for the sciences.
He holds a degree in biochemistry from University of Dallas and planned to be a doctor before attending a university chaplain’s retreat that convinced him he had a religious vocation.
Additionally, McKnight has been a member of the planning team for Re-Engaging Science in Seminary Formation. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation at John Carroll University, the project aims to bring more science-based education into Catholic education.
The website for the project states the project will “allow Roman Catholic seminarians and clergy to engage the bigger questions of science that are naturally a part of theological inquiry and pertinent to contemporary Christians who live in a world deeply influenced, if not dominated, by science and technology.”