Pastor Says He Fought To Keep School Open

Tinder: No Choice But To Close Towson Catholic

July 16, 2009|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,matthew.brown@baltsun.com

In the week since the decision to close Towson Catholic High School was announced, students, parents and alumni have focused their anger on a single man.

Monsignor F. Dennis Tinder has been accused of planning to shut down the school since he came to Immaculate Conception Church nine years ago, of turning down fundraising ideas and of speaking insensitively in referring to the student body as "a whole different community."

Tinder, in his first interview since announcing the closing, described the anger directed at him as "poignant." If he had it to do over, he said Wednesday, he would have closed the financially troubled high school earlier, to give students and their families more time to make alternate plans for the fall.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions stated incorrectly that Monsignor F. Dennis Tinder's interview with The Baltimore Sun was his first since the closing of Towson Catholic High School. He had previously spoken with The Catholic Review. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

"I think we probably erred on the side of trying to keep the school going," said Tinder, who is responsible for the church, the high school and Immaculate Conception School, which serves children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

"If there's a regret, it is that we tried too hard to keep the school open and went too long," he said. "I think we would have faced the same difficulty had we done it earlier. But it is my regret that we waited as long as we did in a failed attempt to keep it open."

Facing the loss of several dozen students and a deficit of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Tinder announced plans last week to close the 87-year-old high school immediately. The decision had been recommended by the school's board and was supported by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, but it was Tinder's to make.

Tinder said he had no choice. School officials had seen enrollment decline from 240 to 163 for September, as deficit projections rose to $650,000.

"We realized that if we continued on and were not able to rectify these two elements, we would be opening a school where we couldn't pay the teachers and couldn't educate the children," he said. "At that juncture, we faced a real moral question. The determination to keep the school open has to be trumped by being concerned about teachers and students."

Students, parents and alumni say Tinder had been planning to close the high school since he arrived at Immaculate Conception Church in 2000. Some say he kept his distance from the school and rebuffed fundraising ideas. The president and vice president of the school's parent association have filed a lawsuit in Baltimore County Circuit Court seeking an injunction to block the closing.

"We are not just making a statement," said association president Lois Windsor, whose daughter just completed her junior year. "We are doing this because this is right and what was done was wrong."

Tinder, 66, who grew up in the parish, said he never wanted to close the school.

"From the moment I arrived here, my intent was to find a way to not only keep the school open but to build an endowment and build a way so that it had a life into the 21st century," he said. "And the decisions that we made along the way over these nine or 10 years were all made around that purpose."

The school hired a development director several years ago, and Tinder said he recognized that the alumni "ultimately were one of the pillars on which the future of the school stood.

"I realized that that required that the alumni develop an organization that reached out to all of their members on a regular basis, and that that would require work and teamwork. And we never were able to effectively do that," he said. "The alumni did run fundraisers. They had an annual bull roast, and there were several others that they suggested. Some of them, the annual bull roast, for instance, I supported every year. But the attendance began to fall off. It was not an effective tool."

Leo Ryan, who worked closely with Tinder as a longtime member of the parish council, called accusations that the monsignor wanted to close the school "completely unfounded."

"There have been situations where I have seen people suggest to him that the school either be closed or be moved outside of the parish construct and become independent," said Ryan, who recently completed a term as council president. "And he always reacted very strongly that he wanted to keep Towson Catholic as part of the Immaculate Conception parish, and he wanted to keep it open."

Critics have seized on comments by Tinder in The Catholic Review, a newspaper published by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, on the difficulty of engaging younger alumni. He described the evolution of Towson Catholic from a school that served families from the church to one that in recent decades drew students from beyond the parish. The church is largely white and affluent; the student body is generally more racially diverse and poorer.

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