Archdiocese makes unwise assumptions in school closure process

March 16, 2010

I am a devout and relatively conservative lifelong Catholic and a 17-year member of St. William of York Parish. My three children all attended St. William of York School from kindergarten through eighth grade and are now enrolled at Seton Keough High School, Mt. St. Joseph High School and the Cardinal Gibbons School. In the aftermath of the decision by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to close 13 Catholic schools, I would like to offer the following observations.

It has been no secret that some of the schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore have been struggling for some time, and Archbishop Edwin O'Brien was certainly correct in seeing the need to address the issues surrounding those schools. I am well aware of the process that the Archbishop's Blue Ribbon Committee undertook in assessing the current situation in all of our Catholic schools, and, in fact, participated in the process myself. The work of this committee was no doubt daunting and arduous, and they are to be commended on their efforts. Unfortunately, the decisions that came out of their efforts appear to be based on some rather unwise assumptions.

The issue of "surplus capacity" loomed large in the decision to close schools. Archbishop O'Brien has stated on more than one occasion that there are 10,000 empty seats in our Catholic schools, or one third of the total capacity of the schools. While this number appears to be quite ominous, it is of vital importance to realize that an empty seat is only a liability to a school if that school is struggling financially. It would be difficult to argue that under-enrollment is not a serious concern in a school that cannot meet its payroll, pay its bills, or repay its debts. However, if a school with empty seats is financially stable, then those empty seats become a valuable commodity which translates into small class sizes. Many families choose Catholic schools, at least in part, for the promise of small class sizes when compared to public schools. As an example, it has been stated that Seton Keough High School was built to accommodate 1,300 students, though it currently only houses approximately 500. I would venture to guess that if 800 more students appeared at the doors of Seton Keough on Monday morning, the school would lose most of the 500 who are currently enrolled there. There is no question that there are empty seats in our schools, but how many of them are actually liabilities and how many of them are assets? I doubt the "real" liability is nearly as great as the picture painted by the archbishop.

Another misguided assumption on the part of the archbishop is that he can blindly make intimate family decisions for people he does not know. The decision to send a child to a Catholic school is a very personal and very unique decision to each of the families of the 2,000-plus students affected by these closings. While I can only speak for the schools that my family is involved with, many of the options given to displaced students are really not options at all. Cardinal Gibbons students were given a list of 10 schools to choose from. Six of those schools are co-educational schools. Cardinal Gibbons is a boys school. That was a huge factor in our family's decision process. One of the schools is in Belair and one is in Annapolis. How many families on the southwest side of Baltimore will find it logistically possible to send their boys that far away? Some of the other options are not feasible because the families make either to little or too much money to afford or qualify financially for the schools. With regard to the grade school options, an under-performing school in a rough neighborhood almost six miles away is no more of an option than is a high school that currently uses all but three of its classrooms. These are two of the three options that St. William of York students have been given. (It should be noted that St. William of York is a financially stable school that has yet to be given the real reasons for its closure.) Their third choice is only a mile away, but parents are being told that the tuition will be $1,100 more than the tuition stated by the archdiocese, and they surely cannot accommodate the 170-plus students that are currently enrolled at St. William's. Does the archbishop realize that many of these choices are not only laughable but insulting to the families whose lives he has just torn apart?

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