Billings, Mont. — Looking for an innovative way to increase awareness and donations for its four Catholic schools, the Billings Catholic School System turned to the streets.
Since last month, supporters of Billings Catholic schools have been able to purchase a Montana-approved organizational license plate that will carry the school’s message.
People behind the plan hope it will instill school pride among alumni, students, teachers and parents.
The four Billings Catholic schools are St. Francis Primary, grades K-2; St. Francis Intermediate, grades 3-5; St. Francis Upper, grades 6-8, and Billings Central Catholic High School, grades 9-12.
“The total number of students is slightly more than 900,” said Kathleen Harris, the school system’s marketing director. “The high school alone has about 340 students, with class sizes running 80 to 95 students.”
Each of the four Catholic schools in the city has its own buildings and administrators. However, a single Billings Catholic School System oversees them, providing some centralized services and guidance, including a nonprofit fundraising foundation.
According to Harris, the license-plate idea came from a foundation board member. Some 120 organizations statewide have their own plate designs, especially colleges and universities.
After getting approval from the Billings Catholic School System board, Harris said she “just ran with the special license-plate idea.” Because the proposal involved fundraising and school- awareness issues, Harris needed only the board’s approval, which includes a priest member. The application process began last June.
“If the proposal had capital costs, involved property in some way or included Catholic identity or faith issues, we would have needed the approval of Bishop Michael Warfel of the eastern Montana Diocese of Great Falls-Billings,” she said.
The license plate’s professional design is based on the Catholic school system’s logo, which features a cluster of five individuals outlined in dark green on a white background — the schools’ two colors. “The four smaller images in the foreground represent the schools and their students and families,” she said.
“The larger outline in back, with a centered cross, is Jesus, who guides and protects us. The Holy Spirit, who Jesus sends to teach the truth, radiates from Jesus in silver streaks,” Harris added.
The logo is placed on the license plate’s left side. The plate number fills the center. Along the bottom, centered in white lettering on a green background, is: “Billings Catholic Schools.” The word “Montana,” also in white on green, rests atop the plate.
Montana Correctional Enterprises charges $4,000 for start-up costs to produce the plates at the state prison in Deer Lodge. The initial cost of the new plate is $45, which includes a one-time state fee of $20. The remaining $25 goes to Billings Catholic Schools. Once a car has a plate, the cost to renew is $25, all of which goes to the school system.
Harris said 160 people would have to buy plates the first year to break even. So far, she doesn’t know the sales numbers, since the project just got under way. The state issues quarterly reports on sales, so Harris will have her first report in two months. “The state doesn’t have a way to offer a sneak peak at sales,” she said. “You just have to wait for the reports — but I’m confident we can meet the 160 number.”
Colleges Benefit Too
Other Montana cities have K-12 Catholic school systems, but Billings seems to be the first with a license-plate program. Butte and Missoula each have total school enrollments of some 480 students, but they haven’t joined yet. Generally, Montana Catholic schools say they are aware of potential benefits, will evaluate the Billings program as it progresses, and are looking for funds to underwrite their initial costs.
While Catholic elementary and secondary schools in a city can’t be compared exactly to a regional Catholic college, license-plate sales for the latter can give an indication of hope and possibilities.
Richard Ortega, vice president of institutional advancement for Carroll College in the western Montana Diocese of Helena, said his school raises about $40,000 a year from its license-plate program. “We have very supportive alumni and graduate between 250 and 300 students yearly,” he said.
As new students enter the system and as high-school seniors graduate, Harris hopes to grow the license-plate base over ordinary losses. But she says the plates are more than a fundraiser.
“Over the years, recognition and awareness of Billings Catholic Schools will grow as people see the plates on streets, at parks and playing fields, and in shopping-center parking lots,” she said. “You just never know how God will use this and what effect it will have.”
Register correspondent Cort Freeman writes from Butte, Montana.