Saving Catholic Education

What various dioceses are doing to keep Catholic schools running.

Faced with ballooning deficits and shrinking enrollment, dioceses across the country are regionalizing Catholic schools in an attempt to ensure the long-term viability of Catholic education, officials said.

“It will be a way of life for us,” said Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York, which is in the beginning phase of a three-year plan to shift control of elementary schools from parishes to regional boards mostly comprised of lay trustees.

In Philadelphia, archdiocesan officials plan to regionalize 22 schools in the next academic year, said Mary Rochford, schools superintendent.

“For now, unless something unexpected happens or divine intervention comes in, I think this will be the wave of the future,” Rochford said.

The last two decades have seen dioceses from coast to coast close scores of Catholic schools, as social, cultural and demographic changes undermined the sustainability of traditional Catholic-school governance and funding models.

Brian Gray, a spokesman for the National Catholic Educational Association, said that trend is particularly pronounced in the Northeast, which has seen a population shift in recent years, with people moving to the South and the Southwest in search of jobs and lower living expenses.

“Demographics, the population shift and money are the big factors here,” said Gray, adding that regionalization is happening in “lots of places,” especially in the Midwest and Great Plains.

“New York is not the first place that we’ve been seeing this,” Gray said. “It’s happening in a lot of different places, in different ways. Other dioceses are looking at regionalization in the best ways that work for them. Every diocese has to decide how it will do it. It really has to be a local solution.”

Last year, the Archdiocese of New York closed 32 schools, citing shrinking enrollment, which had plunged by more than 14,500 students since 2006, and a budget deficit that grew to $22 million.

McNiff said the closed schools were not “failing” and were some of the best academic-performing schools in the archdiocese, but their long-term sustainability was in doubt.

“Our financial model and our governance model needs to be addressed because it’s antiquated,” McNiff said. “We feel, not all but many, parish elementary schools need a different governance structure because it’s too much for a parish, and particularly a pastor, to assume that responsibility.”

“The demographics have changed significantly,” McNiff added. “A lot of kids in the schools, their parents, are not parishioners. The economics have also changed. There isn’t the income that people used to have. And when you look at our pastors, many of them are getting older and are having to run a parish by themselves. It’s overwhelming.”

“We can’t do business as usual. It’s just not working,” said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in a videotaped address Nov. 11 to New York Catholics.

To adjust to the changing realities, the Archdiocese of New York is currently training lay volunteers who will sit on three regional trustee boards this September. The boards, which will be comprised of clergy and laity, will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of Catholic elementary schools in their respective regions. The boards will set policies, including tuition rates, and will take the lead roles in marketing and fundraising. The archdiocese also plans to curtail its funding for elementary schools, which last year cost around $33 million. Instead, the archdiocese will create a $40-million endowment fund, partly funded through sales and rentals of assets.

The three-year regionalization plan will begin on a pilot basis with the trustee boards set up in three counties, including two boroughs of New York City. If the goals of cost savings and increased efficiency prove to be a reality, the archdiocese will expand the governance model to 10 regional boards by the 2013-2014 academic year.

About 40 parish-based schools have opted out of the regionalization plan.

Meanwhile, the regional boards, which will be established as nonprofit corporations, also represent the laity’s growing role in Church affairs as they are asked to take on a more active role in school governance, officials said.

“It’s a significant shift,” McNiff said.

“The laity have been taking on an increasing role in Catholic education for years,” said Gray of the National Catholic Educational Association.

Almost 97% of faculty and staff in Catholic schools across the country today are laypeople, according to the NCEA.

That represents a near-complete reversal from almost a century ago, when around 92% of teachers and staff in Catholic schools were priests and religious, Gray said.

In Philadelphia, the archdiocese is also trying to involve the business and wider Catholic communities in revitalizing Catholic education, said Rochford, the superintendent of schools.

“We want Catholic education. We want Catholic schools. But we just can’t sustain every single school we have,” said Rochford, who partly attributed a declining level of support from Philadelphia-area Catholics to the present crisis.

Statistics indicate that just about 25% of Catholics in the Philadelphia Archdiocese attend weekly Mass.

“We have to think differently about our schools,” Rochford said.

In 2010, Cardinal Justin Rigali, the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia, appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to study the sustainability of Catholic education, and the group determined that seven Delaware County parish grade schools should merge with other nearby schools to form seven regional schools.

However, Philadelphia-area parents opposed the closings, which led to a several-weeks-long appeals process that resulted in Philadelphia’s new leader, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and the commission deciding to keep one school open and to classify another as an independent mission school.

Rochford said the appeals process allowed parents and school communities to present compelling data and information not considered by the Blue Ribbon Commission.

“It didn’t wreck the plan. It woke everybody up,” said Rochford, who added that the commission’s recommendations may not have been as all-encompassing as previously thought.

The Philadelphia schools superintendent reported that the archdiocese will still be able to regionalize a “healthy number” of schools and suggested that it was a matter of stewardship to regionalize schools in areas where resources are wasted on unsustainable individual schools.

New York archdiocesan officials organized a series of town hall-style meetings to present their regionalization plan and also posted details and videos online.

“Everybody, to a person, has said the status quo cannot be the solution,” McNiff said. “We have to change; we know that. Now that we have enough flesh on the bones of this plan, the vast majority of folks are saying, ‘Yes, this is a little bold; it’s sailing out into deep waters. But it’s something we should get behind and support.’”

Brian Fraga writes from El Paso, Texas.

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