Strate­gic in­vest­ment

Our view: Clos­ing schools — es­pe­cially Se­ton Keough — is painful, but the arch­dio­cese is pre­par­ing for a stronger fu­ture with a plan to im­prove its fa­cil­i­ties

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND VOICES -

The last time the Arch­dio­cese of Bal­ti­more an­nounced the clo­sure of schools, the sys­tem was in cri­sis. En­roll­ment was in free-fall in the wake of the Great Re­ces­sion, and painful mea­sures were nec­es­sary to keep the sys­tem vi­able. This week, as Catholic lead­ers an­nounce a much smaller set of cuts, the sit­u­a­tion is much dif­fer­ent. The moves aren’t about staving off the risk of col­lapse but about po­si­tion­ing the sys­tem for growth. Although we sym­pa­thize with the stu­dents and staff who will be af­fected, we are en­cour­aged by the thought­ful ap­proach the arch­dio­cese is tak­ing.

In an in­ter­view with The Sun’s ed­i­to­rial board, Arch­bishop Wil­liam Lori said that en­roll­ment in the sys­tem has sta­bi­lized in re­cent years, al­low­ing for the op­por­tu­nity to do some strate­gic think­ing about its fu­ture. Of­fi­cials spent the last 18 months study­ing com­mu­nity de­mo­graph­ics, en­roll­ment trends andthe con­di­tions of the school build­ings, not with the goal of find­ing ways to cut but with the idea of de­ter­min­ing where the sys­tem might best in­vest. In all, they iden­ti­fied $86 mil­lion worth of projects over the next decade, partly to ad­dress de­ferred main­te­nance but mainly to pro­vide en­hanced ed­u­ca­tional as­sets. The plan calls for mod­ern­ized class­rooms, li­braries and science labs, as well as air con­di­tion­ing, im­proved tech­nol­ogy and new arts fa­cil­i­ties.

The study also iden­ti­fied schools where in­vest­ment doesn’t make­sense, based on de­clin­ing en­roll­ment and fa­cil­i­ties that would be too ex­pen­sive to bring up to stan­dards. Three schools will close and two will merge, with the sav­ings plowed into in­vest­ments in the rest of the sys­tem. The clo­sure of Se­ton Keough High School is likely to at­tract the most at­ten­tion. An all-girls school that once en­rolled more than 1,000, Se­ton Keough now serves 186 stu­dents, which lim­its the op­por­tu­nity for the kinds of ed­u­ca­tional and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar op­por­tu­ni­ties that would be avail­able at a larger school.

Painful though its clo­sure will be, the arch­dio­cese has clearly learned some­lessons about how­tomit­i­gate the im­pact. Th­esys­tem is guar­an­tee­ing that all stu­dents en­rolled in the af­fected schools will find places in new Catholic schools, if they wish, and will not see an in­crease in tu­ition as a re­sult. In 2010, the arch­dio­cese an­nounced the clo­sure of 13 schools in March. This plan, which af­fects schools with a pop­u­la­tion of 426 stu­dents, 71 of whom will grad­u­ate from their cur­rent schools this aca­demic year, is be­ing an­nounced in Oc­to­ber, giv­ing par­ents am­ple time to ad­just. That’s par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for high school stu­dents, who will be able to ap­ply for new place­ments through the nor­mal process. The arch­dio­cese is also mak­ing ex­ten­sive ef­forts to help the af­fected staff find new place­ments.

Catholic schools are a ma­jor part of the Bal­ti­more ed­u­ca­tional ecosys­tem, en­rolling some 17,000 stu­dents. Most who at­tend are not Catholic, but the arch­dio­cese’s mar­ket­ing re­search found that the schools’ faith ed­u­ca­tion re­mains an im­por­tant rea­son why Arch­bishop Wil­liam Lori says school clo­sures will be paired with a 10-year plan for in­vest­ments in the Catholic sys­tem. par­ents choose them. De­mand for Catholic ed­u­ca­tion re­mains high, but cost is a bar­rier, even though tu­ition — about $6,000 a year in ele­men­tary schools and dou­ble that in high schools — re­mains mod­est com­pared to many of the re­gion’s pri­vate schools. The arch­dio­cese pro­vides $13.5 mil­lion in to­tal aid for the sys­tem an­nu­ally, most of it for tu­ition as­sis­tance. Still, the sys­tem gets re­quests for twice as much aid as it is able to pro­vide, a prob­lem of­fi­cials have sought to ame­lio­rate by fundrais­ing for en­dow­ments, even for ele­men­tary schools.

This year, the Gen­eral Assem­bly ap­proved $5 mil­lion in fund­ing for so-called BOOST schol­ar­ships for low-in­come fam­i­lies to send their chil­dren to non-public schools. Many public school ad­vo­cates balked, ar­gu­ing that pri­vate schools should not com­pete for tax dol­lars, and there is no guar­an­tee that the pro­gram will con­tinue past this year. How­ever, it does of­fer an in­di­ca­tion that af­ford­abil­ity is the only thing stand­ing in the way of growth for the arch­dioce­san schools. The sys­tem wound up get­ting $1 mil­lion of this year’s BOOST fund­ing, en­abling the sys­tem to of­fer schol­ar­ships rang­ing from $1,000 to $4,400 to 445 stu­dents, 427 of whomac­cepted them and en­rolled. If more fam­i­lies who can af­ford the full tu­ition are at­tracted to the sys­tem be­cause of the in­vest­ments it is now plan­ning, it will be in a stronger po­si­tion to pro­vide aid for those who can’t, re­gard­less of what hap­pens with BOOST.

Even though this round of school clo­sures is mod­est com­pared to what hap­pened six years ago, it is cer­tain to be dis­rup­tive and dispir­it­ing for the fam­i­lies that are af­fected. They of­ten make sub­stan­tial sac­ri­fices to pro­vide their chil­dren with a Catholic ed­u­ca­tion, and changes like this one are bound to make some ques­tion their de­ci­sions. But this an­nounce­ment isn’t about re­treat and re­trench­ment. It’s about po­si­tion­ing the sys­tem to grow.


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