Gibbons officials stunned

principal 'just didn't see it coming'

Parents are set to rally, are planning fundraising campaign

March 06, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare and Arthur Hirsch

Officials of the Cardinal Gibbons School said Friday they were stunned to learn this week that their school was on the list of 13 to be closed at the end of the academic year, given that they had been working to meet goals set by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and had not been told of serious problems.

"I just didn't see it coming," Gibbons Principal David Brown said Friday after a meeting with archdiocese officials and board of trustee members. "We have done everything they have asked of us, and we continue to turn out successful young men."

Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said Friday that in a meeting with Gibbons officials in September, the archdiocese gave the school until the end of 2009 to present a balanced budget and a "plan that would give the archbishop confidence that it could sustain itself into the future."

Caine said the school completed the budget, but did not provide a clear plan to "reverse the negative financial and enrollment trends that put the school in its current position."

He said enrollment at the boys high school had slipped to less than 300, down from more than 400 in the school year ending in June 2007.

Brown said his office phone has not stopped ringing since the announcement. The most frequent questions are why, he said. He has no answer to offer.

The school was managing its debt, Brown said.

"We are 100 percent tuition-driven, but were operating in the black for the first time ever," he said. "I think this decision was based more on accounting than educating."

Members of the board of trustees said they were not given any signal of trouble.

As recently as Monday night, a friend was asking board member Michael R. Matejevich whether his nephew should send a deposit to enroll at Gibbons, where tuition runs about $10,000 a year.

"I said, 'As far as I know as a board member, we are fine. We have done everything they asked us to do,' " Matejevich said. "As of Monday night, I did not have an inkling."

Matejevich and board member Carmel G. Kelly said the school was working on its fundraising, but the effort was hamstrung the past two years by persistent rumors that the school was going to shut down. Both faulted the archdiocese for failing to make a clear statement dispelling the rumors.

Caine said "the school wanted the archdiocese to issue publicly a statement that would have suggested the school's future viability was assured. Given the financial and enrollment realities, we could not provide that."

Matejevich and Kelly felt that they were being misled about the school's status.

Caine said that everyone in the school system knew that decisions about school consolidations were due in March.

He said the school's debt, which includes $1 million owed in unpaid insurance premiums, is "among the highest in the archdiocese." He said the school has operated with deficits in four of the past five years, including $457,000 in the 2009 fiscal year.

About 50 Gibbons students showed up at the Catholic Center on Thursday hoping to meet with Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. He was not there; a dozen students and graduates met for about an hour with Bishop Denis J. Madden instead.

Senior Ryan R. Green-Ellis, who was in the meeting, said Madden was asked whether the problem was money. At first, Green-Ellis said, Madden said it was not. But as the meeting continued, Green-Ellis said, it became clear that it was.

"By closing the school they are doing the students and furthermore the community a disservice," Green-Ellis said in an e-mail.

Parents have organized a rally on the campus for 2 p.m. today, are planning a fundraising campaign and are expected to turn out at 7 p.m. Monday for a meeting at the school hosted by the archdiocese.

"There is a lot of hope among parents that [O'Brien] can be dissuaded," Brown said. "But I have to be pragmatic. He comes from a military background, and officers don't typically recant."

Chris Schene, mother of a junior, said the meeting Monday will likely be long and emotional.

"Whether we change their minds or not, we have to be heard."

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