School, Parish Grew Apart

Students, Parents, Alumni Still Trying To Save Towson Catholic High

Rally Set For This Evening

July 14, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare and Matthew Hay Brown | Mary Gail Hare and Matthew Hay Brown,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

The decision to close Towson Catholic High School and the resulting outcry from students, parents and alumni has revealed a long-brewing disconnect between the school and the parish that has been its home since 1922.

Only 17 of the 163 students who were enrolled for the fall are parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church; 86 percent live outside Towson. With the school facing a $650,000 deficit that included $160,000 in unpaid tuition from last year, parish officials announced last week that they would close what some described as a money-losing ministry that they could no longer afford to subsidize.

"It was an outreach ministry into the city that brought many kids ... from the northern part of Baltimore City, and they came out to Towson and got a great education by all accounts," said Dan Cahill, a member of the parish council who reviews Immaculate's finances quarterly. "But we didn't see long-term those kids coming out of the school and then becoming active alumni and giving back."

Vocal parents and alumni are continuing their opposition to the closing with a 7 p.m. rally at the school Tuesday, the third such event in less than a week. The protest will occur as parents attend a school fair inside the building with representatives from 15 area parochial schools in hopes of finding a place for their children in September.

During Masses Sunday, a visiting priest asked worshipers to support a mission school in India while parents, students and alumni were holding a rally outside the church. One father of a rising junior asked why the parish would support a school thousands of miles away but not the one on the church's doorstep.

Opponents of the closing have launched a pledge campaign and a petition drive aimed at reversing the decision, and they are reviewing legal options for keeping the school open. Alumni began collecting pledges during the Sunday rally and within 24 hours had promises totaling nearly $16,000, said Mike Boehm, who is coordinating the effort.

"We want to show the parish and the archbishop that there is a helping hand," said Boehm, a 1997 graduate. "We want to work with the school and find a solution."

Several alumni said they are looking into the possibility of an injunction that would force the school to remain open.

"We are exploring every avenue, including the legal avenues," said Paul A. Mecinski, president of the alumni association. "An injunction is absolutely an option."

Mark Graber, professor of law and government at the University of Maryland School of Law, said an injunction may be difficult but is possible, given many parents had paid their deposits and begun making tuition payments for the new school year.

"If they have put down money, the parents have fulfilled their part of the contract with the school, in the understanding that there is going to be a school," Graber said.

Parents criticized the speed with which Msgr. F. Dennis Tinder, pastor of the parish, closed the school. Many said they learned of it through the media or e-mails. Most did not receive letters explaining the decision until Thursday. As late as June, Tinder told parents and faculty members the school would reopen at the end of August.

On Friday, Tinder told the Catholic Review, which is published by the archdiocese, that the school that had educated parish children, including his own two siblings, evolved into an entirely different facility that "educated a different community of people."

"Many of us found that awfully offensive," said Judy Messina, president of the high school PTA.

Time is critical, given that parents have barely six weeks to find other school placements for their children and the faculty is already searching for new jobs, Mecinski said.

"Some parents are still stunned and are walking in circles," said Messina, whose daughter is a rising senior. "Some are holding out, hoping we open on Aug. 27. Most of us are waiting for the meeting Tuesday."

While each school has its own admission standards and will interview the students, all of the schools participating in the school fair have agreed to accept Towson Catholic students at the $9,500 tuition they currently pay, said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese.

"Our doors are open for all of the TC male students," said John Tucker, admissions director of Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore City. "We will take them all and add faculty, if that is necessary."

Sister Shawn Marie Maguire, head of Maryvale Preparatory School in Brooklandville, said, "We feel compassion for these families and will reach out to them."

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