Archdiocese to close 13 schools in city, county

Consolidation plan an effort to 'regroup' in face of Catholic system's financial problems

March 03, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch | arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Facing rising costs and falling enrollments, the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore will close 13 of its 64 schools at the end of the academic year, officials told employees and families on Wednesday.

Parents reacted with anguish and anger as word spread of 12 K-8 schools and one high school, Cardinal Gibbons School. All are in Baltimore or Baltimore County.

"This is a major blow," Ted Ewachiw said at Sacred Heart of Mary School in East Baltimore, where he picked up his two children after school Wednesday. "It's terrible. I don't know what I'm going to do now. I don't want to send them to public."

The reorganization will displace 2,152 students and 325 teachers, staff and administrators. The displaced students, who make up nearly 10 percent of the 22,700 students in the system, will be guaranteed a spot in a school no more than five miles from their current school, but it's not yet clear how many employees will lose their jobs.

"I wish there were a painless way to do this," Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, spiritual leader of the area's half million Catholics, said in an interview this week. "It's going to be quite painful. It's going to have a ripple effect beyond what we can predict."

He said the reorganization, to incorporate recommendations to be published in a long-term strategy report in June, represents an effort to "stop and regroup" in the face of chronic financial problems that have threatened to destroy the system one school closing at a time.

"If we keep this up in a dozen years we won't have a school system," O'Brien said.

Hardest hit by the plan is Baltimore, which is slated to lose nine of its 30 Catholic schools. They include St. Bernadine Catholic School, Fr. Charles Hall Catholic Elementary and Middle School, St. Katharine School and Queen of Peace Cluster, Mother Mary Lange Catholic School, Our Lady of Fatima School, St. Rose of Lima School, Shrine of the Sacred Heart School, St. William of York School and Cardinal Gibbons.

In the county, four of 27 schools will close. They include Ascension School in Halethorpe, St. Clare School in Essex, Holy Family School in Randallstown and Sacred Heart of Mary School in Dundalk.

Parents were notified of the closings in a two-page letter e-mailed or sent home with students on Wednesday.

"They didn't even bother meeting with us," said Trish Jasinski, mother of a fifth grader at St. Clare, who got the word by e-mail. "I understand the financial concerns of the archdiocese, but we are paying more than $6,000 a year and volunteering hours at the school. The parents just in the last six months have raised $65,000 to keep this school open."

Jasinski transferred her daughter Sarah to St. Clare two years ago, after the school the child had attended at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Middle River shut down. She said her commitment to Catholic education is now wavering.

"These are children we are talking about," she said. "Not pawns in some game."

Betty Carter, whose daughter Jessica is in the eighth grade at Sacred Heart of Mary School, called the news "devastating. "Surprising? No."

The Sparrows point woman has watched as enrollment at the elementary and middle school has declined steeply. Just 33 students make up the middle school grades, and the second and third grades were combined this year.

"You do the math," she said. "It's obvious this school was going to have to close."

Archdiocesan officials announced the closings to principals during a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning. O'Brien is scheduled to detail the reorganization and plans for what the archdiocese is calling a "rebirth" of local Catholic education at a press conference on Thursday morning.

A report on the consolidation designates 24 so-called receiving schools to accept students from the schools that are closing.

Monsignor Bob Hartnett, who directed the work on the consolidation, said some displaced students would be traveling slightly less distance to their nearest new school than they are now, some slightly more. He said the average distance between any closed school and any of its receiving schools is less than three miles. Students make their own way to school, as the archdiocese does not provide transportation.

Average tuition at archdiocesan elementary schools is $5,200 for parishioners and $6,300 for non-parishioners. At current rates, the archdiocese says, the average tuition for the receiving schools is $132 less than the schools that will be closing.

Hartnett said all 1,500 families affected by the changes will get a call in the next few days to see if they need help with the transition, then a follow-up call, then another call during the summer. He said "response teams" will be sent to schools on Thursday to answer employees' questions.

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