Gibbons still has hope of going independent

Archdiocese still expects to close high school, but graduates cling to hope bishop raised

March 10, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch and Mary Gail Hare

The Archdiocese of Baltimore is discouraging talk of turning the Cardinal Gibbons School over to supporters to run as an independent school, but the Gibbons community is not giving up hope.

Alumnus Tom Grace said Tuesday that graduates are pursuing several options to save the Southwest Baltimore school, the only high school among the 13 schools the archdiocese is planning to close at the end of the academic year.

"If the archdiocese supports us, we will raise the money and the students will come," he said. Bishop Denis J. Madden raised hope of a future for Gibbons on Monday night at the end of a meeting with hundreds of students, parents and alumni, one of three public sessions held by the archdiocese that evening to discuss the closings.

Asked by a parent if the archdiocese would allow Gibbons to "go independent and rent the buildings at a minimal cost to the Archdiocese of Baltimore," Madden said that "all kinds of options are being considered." The response drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

'A glimmer of hope'
"The bishop gave us a glimmer of hope," said David Brown, the school's principal. "With that glimmer out there, several of our most prominent alumni are working on the idea of Cardinal Gibbons operating as an independent Catholic school. I think there is growing support for the idea."

Madden could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Archdiocesan spokesman Sean Caine said Tuesday that Madden was referring to discussions about use of the building itself, not the continuing operation of the school. Church officials have said that no decisions have been made about the 18 buildings affected in the closings. Four of the buildings are owned by the archdiocese; the rest are owned by their parishes.

"The thought that the existing school community could raise the kind of money necessary to run the school is not realistic and not being considered," Caine said. To suggest that the archdiocese is taking that idea seriously "would just be giving people false hope. And that's not fair."

Grace, a local physician, insisted that Madden has given a different signal.

"We don't care what Sean Caine says," he said. "Bishop Madden has clearly left the door open. He has told us he will talk again with the archbishop and get back to us. We are taking the man at his word."

Others agreed.

'Open heart, open mind'
"Bishop Madden came with an open heart and came with an open mind," said Tom Lentz, a member of the school's board of trustees. "It gives the community hope, tremendous hope."

Caine acknowledged that Madden talked with a few school supporters after the meeting, but Caine said Madden made clear to them that he was not open to the idea of keeping the school going as an independent operation.

Caine said the decision was based in part on financial considerations and prospects of future enrollment at Gibbons. Fewer than 300 students now attend a school designed for nearly 1,000.

Since the announcement of the closings last Wednesday, the Gibbons community has been the most active in protest. Students and graduates rallied outside the Catholic Center on Thursday while a smaller group met for about an hour inside with Madden, Caine and Mary Ellen R. Fise, program director for Catholic schools planning.

On Saturday, a few hundred people turned out to support the school at a rally on the school campus. More attended a Mass on Sunday. Madden and Monsignor Bob Hartnett, who headed the school consolidation effort, said last week that they wanted to listen to the concerns of parents and students, but they held out no prospect of reversing the decisions.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said last week that years of rising costs and declining enrollments had made it necessary to close the schools as part of a larger reorganization intended to sustain Catholic education in the archdiocese. The reorganization also includes new academic programs, expanded tuition assistance and the creation of a new elementary school on the city's west side.

The closings will displace 2,152 of the system's 22,700 students. O'Brien has promised each displaced student a seat in another archdiocesan school. The consolidation will also displace 325 teachers, staff and administrators, some of whom will likely lose their jobs.

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