Towson Catholic Alumni File Lawsuit To Block Closing

July 15, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

The fight over the fate of Towson Catholic High School escalated Tuesday when the alumni association filed suit against the school's parish and its pastor over the abrupt closing of the school. The group is seeking an injunction to keep the school open at least another year.

"This closing is a slap in the face to the alumni and to anyone who ever loved this school. We were ready to remedy this through various options, but we could not get the archdiocese to the table," said alumni association president Paul Mecinski, who announced the lawsuit at a rally last night.

He added, "If students want to come here, we want to keep this place open."

The suit was filed Tuesday in Baltimore County Circuit Court by the alumni association's lawyer, Richard Grason VI of the law offices of T. Bruce Hanley. Attempts to reach Grason were unsuccessful last night.

FOR THE RECORD - A story Wednesday on the closing of Towson Catholic High School indicated that the Towson Catholic Alumni Association had filed suit against the school's parish and pastor. In fact, two parents, Lois Windsor and Judy Messina, are the plaintiffs of the suit, and the alumni association has helped organize and pay for it. Also, the story should have said an employee of the Knights of Columbus offered the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish an application for a low-interest loan to make repairs to the school building.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Mecinski said the parish broke its contract with the students because parents had already paid tuition for the coming school year.

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said he had not seen the suit and only learned of it at the rally.

"Keeping this school open is not an option at all," he said. "Even if money is raised, that would not address the question of decreasing enrollment."

Mark Graber, professor of law and government at the University of Maryland School of Law, has said an injunction might be difficult but is possible, given that 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.

The rally was the third in the past week attended by hundreds of alumni, parents and students. It coincided with a meeting with parents that was often an emotionally charged shouting match between parents and school officials, and a school fair intended to help students find placement at other Catholic schools.

"This school violated our trust," Mike McDonough, father of a rising sophomore, said during the meeting. He asked for information about the financial status of other schools so that he won't have to transfer his son twice. His question led to a standing ovation.

Archdiocesan officials said they could offer no such assurances.

"Our schools are facing serious challenges and are in difficult situations," said Ron Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese.

Monsignor F. Dennis Tinder, who has been criticized by parents and alumni over the school's closing, attended the meeting last night but rarely spoke. A girls soccer coach who is also a member of the Knights of Columbus recounted a meeting with Tinder in which he offered the school a Knights of Columbus loan at a low-interest rate and said Tinder threw the offer away. When he asked him why last night, Tinder responded by saying the Knights of Columbus do not offer such loans.

The pastor has pointed to declining enrollment and a $650,000 deficit as the main factors in the decision to close the 87-year-old school on the grounds of Immaculate Conception parish. "Enrollment problems created financial problems," said Leo Ryan, president of the parish council, who led the meeting last night.

Tinder told The Catholic Review, which is published by the archdiocese, that the high school had evolved from a parish school into a facility educating "a different community of people." Only 17 of the more than 160 students enrolled for the fall were parishioners and 86 percent of the student body live outside of Towson.

Parents have criticized the speed with which Tinder closed the school. As late as June, Tinder told parents and faculty members the school would reopen at the end of August. The timing is critical because school starts in about six weeks.

Last night, parents also met with representatives from 15 area parochial schools, hoping to find placements for their children.

"If we can't stop the closing of this school, we are certainly grateful for the kind, generous open arms other schools are presenting us," Lois Windsor, president of the high school PTA and mother of a rising senior, said yesterday before the fair.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex, a co-ed facility similar in size to Towson Catholic, has offered placements to all 38 of TC's rising seniors and has offered to make accommodations, including letting them to wear their current uniforms.

The rally continued well into the night, with many alumni arguing that the parish has not responded to their offers of help. As of Monday, the alumni had received pledges of $16,000 to help save the school.

Caine said three appeals were made to the school's more than 5,000 alumni in the past year. Only about 4 percent responded, with donations totaling $26,000.

Sarah Hammel, a 2006 graduate, said she never received anything in the mail from the school seeking donations. She and her mother, Jane Phillips, attended the rally and pledged $500 immediately and $1,000 each year to keep the school open. "If we had known the school was in trouble, there would have been a lot of help," Hammel said.

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