Hard times push Catholic schools toward crisis

Historically, the work of members of religious orders kept costs low for Catholic schools, but now the staffs are mostly lay people, and systems have to keep up with the costs of salaries and health benefits, Gray said.

The worsening economy has exacerbated problems, leaving families with less money to spare for tuition.

“There is a real concern about the future,” Gray said. “Who are Catholic schools for, if the average Catholic family can’t afford tuition? It’s supposed to be accessible to any Catholic family who wants to send their children there.”

Ensuring that schools are accessible geographically and financially is key to increasing enrollment, O’Brien said. But Catholic school systems might find themselves reevaluating their missions.

“Our primary responsibility is to educate our Catholic kids in our tradition,” O’Brien said. “But we also realize we have become kind of a refuge for others, because of the state of public school systems in some areas. So we certainly have an obligation to the common good.”

In nearby Washington, D.C., the archdiocese recently went through a process like the one Baltimore is beginning, holding a convocation on enrollment in October 2007.

One result was the fine-tuning of the archdiocese’s tuition assistance program. Previously, the archdiocese helped needy schools balance budgets, but the new program aimed at retaining and attracting students means money can go toward an education instead of just paying bills, said spokeswoman Susan Gibbs.

The archdiocese spent $940,000 this academic year to retain 311 students and attract 238 new ones, and those families are paying $1.8 million in tuition, Gibbs said.

This academic year, Washington also took the unusual step of converting seven schools to a public charter group, which aims to maintain the standards and values of Catholic schools without focusing on religion. Excluding the number of students lost through the conversion, the city’s Catholic school enrollment was 2 percent lower this year, according to the archdiocese.

“I am very pleased with where our enrollment for schools is,” said Washington archdiocese superintendent Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill. “We’re in a good place right now, and I’m praying we can stay in this good place.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city and the Diocese of Brooklyn are considering a move similar to that of D.C., converting four schools with falling enrollment into publicly funded charter schools without religious instruction. However, state law prohibits converting religious schools into charters.

Because of that state law, the program would require legislative action before it could be put in place, Bloomberg said.

But the mayor said the partnership might be a good fit. City schools are short of space and looking for ways to expand, and Catholic schools have unused space, a dwindling number of students, and a need for new funding.

“When you have a shared interest like that, it is time to sit down and see if there is something you can do to benefit everyone,” Bloomberg said.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said the mayor was effectively throwing a “life preserver” to drowning schools–one he was inclined to grab, even though it would mean an end to the schools’ Catholic tilt.

“Yes, we do have our own value system,” he said. “But we think with charter schools … we can also maintain our value system.” He noted, as did Bloomberg, that the two sides have only just begun talking about how the conversion might work.

“We don’t know how extensive this will be, or even if this is possible, but we are willing to try,” DiMarzio said.

Bloomberg said New York also would consider charter school conversions for other parochial and private schools in the city, and not confine its invitation to Catholics.

Laura Ascione

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