Anger In Towson

Shocked Parents, Students, Alumni Rally To Protest Closing Of School

July 09, 2009|By Childs Walker and Mary Gail Hare | Childs Walker and Mary Gail Hare,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Hannah Messina and Cristina Mastellone always assumed they would walk across the same stage to pick up their high school diplomas. After all, the close friends have been classmates since preschool.

But six weeks from the start of their senior year, the sudden closing of Towson Catholic High School has ripped their certain plan to bits.

"I am not supposed to be crying now," said Mastellone. "I am supposed to be crying at my graduation next year."

"I should be looking at colleges, not other high schools," said Messina, wearing her white school polo shirt and blue uniform skirt.

The girls were part of a rally Wednesday morning where hundreds of parents, students and alumni unleashed their frustration at the announcement and at the seeming unwillingness of the school's parish, Immaculate Conception, to seek financial support. They waved blue and gold signs saying "Save TC" and sang the school song. Friends said goodbye and fretted about where they'd be in September.

Citing the "tidal wave of this dire economy" and a $650,000 deficit, the 86-year-old school notified parents and its 20-member faculty via e-mail Tuesday that it would not open for classes in September.

But many who loved the small school are convinced that more could have been done to save it. They described a pattern of indifference by Monsignor F. Dennis Tinder, the pastor of Immaculate Conception.

The alumni association's president, Paul A. Mecinski, said that if his group had received some warning of the dire situation, members might have been able to help.

"If we had been given a year, we could have gotten the school back on track, but no one reached out to us," Mecinski said. "Obviously, there are management issues, but a lot of us are willing to start fund-raising now and would gladly donate our own resources. This debt is not overwhelming."

Judy Messina, Hannah's mother and the vice president of the PTA, said Tinder routinely turned down the group's fundraising plans.

"I think we could offer him $650,000 today and he would still close the school," added PTA president Lois Windsor.

Tinder did not make himself available for comment. But Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said the combination of $160,000 in unpaid tuition from last year and the sudden loss of 81 students from next year's projected enrollment was too much for the school to overcome.

"My heart breaks for the kids because they're forced to process this so quickly and at the same time turn their focus to the future," he said. "But this was strictly a financially forced issue. We wouldn't be having this conversation if we hadn't seen unprecedented impacts from this economy."

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien released a statement Wednesday supporting Tinder and the school administration.

"They expended great energy and countless hours to save the school from this fate. I am grateful for their commitment to Towson Catholic and to the students and faculty," he said.

Caine said "random fundraisers" could not have covered the school's debt.

"There is always the 'would-have-dones' in these situations, but the magnitude, scope and immediacy of a $650,000 deficit forced the decision," he said. "The school looked at every opportunity and explored every option to deal with the enormity of this problem. There was always outreach to alumni and we can document the support received. It certainly was nowhere close to what was needed."

Enrollment declines and closings have afflicted Catholic schools, which serve about 2.5 million students nationwide, for a decade particularly at elementary schools level and at schools such as Towson Catholic that serve urban populations.

"It has been a steady and pretty troubling trend," said the Rev. Ronald Nuzzi, senior director of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame.

Nuzzi said it's unclear whether the recession will cause steeper enrollment declines this fall. But he said that the increased cost of running a school combined with the financial strains on families are major reasons for the overall trend.

The archdiocese reported that enrollment had declined 5 percent at its schools last fall. But even then, church leaders expressed optimism that no schools would have to close this year. The problems at Towson Catholic, however, illustrate the sudden impacts caused by a terrible economy.

Money collected by the archdiocese to meet financial aid requests for six to nine months was used up within weeks of the start of school. By spring, Towson Catholic faced $160,000 in unpaid tuition bills. The school laid off 11 teachers and staff members and pared programs. Then, in the past few weeks, 81 students informed the school that they wouldn't be back in the fall, leaving Towson Catholic far short of its projected enrollment. The school had never lost more than 26 students in one year.

"That's why this comes off as so sudden," Caine said. "We had never seen anything like this."

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