NEW YORK — After a final, painful round of school closings, the Archdiocese of New York is scrapping the parish-based school model for a new concept of school governance and financing that it says will ensure the survival of Catholic education for years to come.
“While we loved the parish-based school model, it has become in too many cases an antiquated model for keeping schools financially sustainable,” said Timothy McNiff, the archdiocese’s schools superintendent.
The archdiocese announced in January the closure of 22 elementary schools and two secondary schools by June 2013 in order to cover the school system’s $24-million deficit. The final closures, however, signal the end of a phase in the archdiocese’s Pathways to Excellence plan and the beginning of the plan’s final phase to sustain the archdiocese’s school system and enhance its Catholic identity.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote in a Jan. 31 Wall Street Journal commentary that the archdiocese was moving to a system of regionalization, where laypeople would have a significant role to play in governance and sustaining the schools' financial future.
“The goal is a system of strong, accessible, affordable Catholic schools, owned by every parish, supported by every Catholic, available to every child,” Cardinal Dolan said.
The archdiocese will break up its school system into nine regions with each region under the control of a regional board. Each board is a non-profit 501(c)3 educational corporation chartered by the Department of Education. The structure helps maintain Catholic identity of the board, since it specifies that the archbishop, vicar general and chancellor will have veto power in some key areas.
The boards will have 15-29 trustees, with clergy forming a majority, and involve laymen with skills and talents in finances, marketing, development and other areas.
Mary McDonald, an education consultant working with the Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia, said one of the biggest challenges for any diocese moving schools from a parish-support model to a regionalized board structure is figuring out how to keep the schools “authentically Catholic.”
“Although the schools may function under a different operational model, if the boards are committed to maintaining the Catholic character of the schools, [Cardinal Dolan’s] plan will be a success,” she said.
Benefits of Sharing
Christian Brother Robert Bimonte, executive vice president of the National Catholic Educational Association, noted the board structure will provide schools many benefits of a consortium. It allows for “shared purchasing power” on behalf of many schools and can streamline operating costs better than a typical parish-based school.
“Anything you can do to save money is going to be a benefit,” Brother Robert said. “Tuition in most of our schools does not cover the actual cost of running the school.”
Brother Robert said Catholic school tuition generally covers two-thirds of a child’s education, but the rest has to be covered by parish subsidies, scholarships and fundraising drives. The problem with the traditional parish-based model, he said, is that a school supported by a cash-strapped parish may not have enough money left over for needed investments after the regular bills are paid.
“Capital isn’t even addressed. So if you have a school roof needing a $2-million repair, where does it come from?” he asked.
McNiff said the New York Archdiocese intends to raise $20 million in new revenue to invest in its remaining schools by instituting a brand-new parish tax and allocating the proceeds of sold Church property to fund an income-generating endowment.
He said every single region will also pull its own weight to build its finances and enroll more students. Under the regionalization plan, each region will have its own superintendent’s office with a marketing specialist, instructional specialist and financing experts.
But each board’s 501(c)3 status also could provide a key advantage in financing the school by netting in donors who may have been wary in the past about cutting a check directly to the archdiocese.
“It’s a level of comfort for people investing in education for children,” McDonald said. “They want to make sure that the money is going for the education of the children in those schools and that it is not used for any other purpose.”
The archdiocese’s plan has already been piloted in three regions: Staten Island, Northwest and South Bronx and Rockland County.
McNiff said the archdiocese is “very pleased” with the results of the pilot program and is looking forward to launching the program in the other six regions by September.
“You may see a school close as an exception, but we are out of the school-closure business in the future. People need to trust us on that,” he said.
The archdiocese made a conscious decision, McNiff said, not to close at-risk schools that would have left inner-city students without access to a Catholic school or leave those in the suburbs and rural areas without transportation to a Catholic school. The last round of closures affects close to 4,600 students.
“It’s about reducing the number of buildings, but not our students,” he said, adding the archdiocese kept open St. Peter’s School in Liberty, Sullivan County, because it would have left students living outside the 15-mile bus transportation radius unable to transfer to another Catholic school.
According to McNiff, the archdiocese also is very close to finalizing an agreement with a group of investors that would take over six inner-city Catholic elementary schools and run them as Catholic schools on a model similar to the Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia. (See Register coverage.)
“There is more than one way to keep our Catholic schools sustainable and viable,” he commented.
The Archdiocese of New York is also hoping that it can increase donor investment once the state Legislature passes the Education Investment Incentives Act. The bill, which was passed last year by the state Senate but has not yet cleared the state Assembly, would allow individuals and corporations to claim a tax credit for investing in scholarship funds to assist families with tuition.
“This measure is critical to level the playing field,” said Jim Cultrara, education director for the New York Catholic Conference. Cultrara said the taxpayer’s burden increases when families can no longer afford to send their children to independent or religious schools. He also said the state is bleeding the Church financially by failing to reimburse Catholic schools for participating in state education programs and collecting education data.
Cultrara said the state owes the archdiocese $30 million, out of $200 million owed statewide to Catholic and independent schools.
He added, “One must ask the obvious question: If those funds were provided, would those schools the archdiocese closed have remained on a firmer financial ground and stayed open?”
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.