Catholic schools in dire straits

Archdiocese plans summit in face of 5% drop in enrollment

December 05, 2008|By Liz Bowie and Kelly Brewington | Liz Bowie and Kelly Brewington,liz.bowie@baltsun.com and kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

A 5 percent drop in Catholic school enrollment this year will leave the majority of the Archdiocese of Baltimore's schools in serious financial trouble, according to Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien.

O'Brien said he would convene a summit of priests next month to consider innovative ways to combat the continuing decline in enrollment in schools from Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore. The summit will consider higher tuition, consolidations and school closings, but O'Brien said the archdiocese will also look around the country for solutions

Although Catholic schools have been gradually closing for decades, the concern became more acute a few weeks ago when enrollment figures were collected from the schools that serve nearly 20,000 students in primarily kindergarten through eighth grade.

Overall, enrollment is down 5 percent, the equivalent of 1,200 students or four full schools. That is twice as great as the steady 2.5 percent declines in past years. The problem was most acute in the city, where the loss was as great as 7 percent, and less so elsewhere, where the decline was 3 percent to 4 percent. The economic downtown has been a factor in the decline, O'Brien said.

By the end of the school year, the archdiocese will owe an estimated $9.3 million for insurance premiums that it can't afford. O'Brien said the archdiocese will go into the red and will have to raise the money, perhaps by finding properties to sell.

"We don't want panic," he said yesterday. "We want everyone to understand what the situation is and then come to some just solution."

The enrollment declines fit into a national pattern, particularly in urban areas, where the old neighborhood parish, founded by waves of immigrants years ago, has largely turned to educating children from poor, non-Catholic families. With fewer nuns and priests who had essentially worked for free, the schools had to raise tuition to pay staff.

Not all Catholic schools in the area are overseen by the archdiocese. Loyola High, Calvert Hall and Notre Dame Prep are schools in Towson that have many applicants and comparatively high tuitions and are not suffering under the same declines.

In Baltimore, parochial schools might be seeing increased competition from the city school system, which has opened a variety of charter and independently run schools in the past few years. This fall, 600 students were attracted to nine new small middle/high schools and younger students to a Montessori charter school.

Laura Weeldrier, deputy chief of staff in the city schools, said that while she has no firm data she has heard anecdotally from parents and principals that significant numbers of parents are moving their children from parochial to public schools. The Montessori school, she said, drew many children from outside the public school system.

Currently, 9,000 students attend public charter schools in the city.

In Western Maryland, one Catholic school has announced that it will close at the end of the school year. St. Michael in Frostburg, which has operated for 110 years, has about 85 students in grades pre-K through eight.

"St. Michael is like a family. It is a wonderful school," said Mollie Lawrence, the parent of two students there. Last year, she said, the school developed a five-year plan to increase enrollment. "I don't think that we were given the opportunity to try all the options. ... We are devastated."

When asked whether he would close other schools, O'Brien said, "Anything is on the board. The last resort would be to close a school." Any closings or consolidations would not be likely, he said, before 2010.

O'Brien made public the extent of the problem in an open letter to Catholics that was published in the Catholic Review last week.

O'Brien said the archdiocese will probably seek aid from the General Assembly in its next session. This year, a bill was introduced that would have given businesses a 75 percent tax credit for contributing to a nonprofit that provides tuition to students at nonpublic schools.

O'Brien acknowledged that it was a poor time to seek any financial support in the legislature but said that the state saves $1.4 billion a year in education costs because of the role that the archdiocese schools play.

Another solution, one that has been tried in Washington, is to convert some Catholic schools into public charter schools. But he said there might be legal constraints in Maryland.

For many parents, sending a child to a parochial school has long been a family tradition. When Chuck and Lisa Brawner's son was ready to enter kindergarten there was no doubt where the couple would send him to school. Chuck Brawner attended St. Thomas Aquinas in Hampden. His father went there. And his mother was a bookkeeper there, a job she kept since he was a boy.

But news of financial struggles facing schools in the Baltimore Archdiocese has the Brawners worried that their neighborhood school of three generations in the family might not survive.

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