Archdiocese to close two Baltimore schools

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Citing falling enrollment, a deficit and the cost of maintaining aging facilities, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced plans yesterday to close two more city Catholic schools: Bishop John Neumann in Highlandtown and Holy Spirit in Waverly.

The archdiocese said it would shut down the two pre-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade schools - which have a collective enrollment of 348 - at the end of the academic year and arrange for the children to transfer to other area Catholic schools.

In an interview, Catholic schools Superintendent Ronald J. Valenti said the archdiocese might announce more closings before year's end. "There is a possibility," he said.

Valenti said the school closings did not signal a reduced commitment to the city, but an attempt by the archdiocese to deliver educational services more efficiently under difficult circumstances.

The announcement of the closings, which came in a letter mailed to parents Thursday, is the second of its kind in three weeks. The archdiocese said last month that it would close Our Lady of the Rosary High School in the Fells Point-Canton area, which has 126 students.

Parents and teachers at Bishop Neumann were stunned by the news.

"I'm devastated," said Lisa Ryan, 31, who attended the red-brick school for four years as a girl and whose three sons - Shawn, 9; Jacob, 6; and Nicholas, 4 - all go there. "It's going to be a big upset for them."

The decision to close Bishop Neumann is especially painful because, unlike Holy Spirit and some other city Catholic schools, it is not losing money.

"Unfortunately, it has come as a shock to us because we've been responsible," said Principal Phyllis Karko. She said that despite a drop in enrollment, the school has managed to run a tiny surplus each year.

Karko said the school is closing because of circumstances beyond its control, including neighborhood families moving to the suburbs and the cost of maintaining an 80-year-old building, which the archdiocese does not own. Karko said the school's 170 children, who either walk to school or ride with their parents, can move to one of three schools within a few miles - Father Kolbe, Archbishop Borders and Our Lady of Fatima.

At Holy Spirit, Principal Pauline Tobias attributed her school's closure to falling enrollment - the student body has shrunk from 206 in 2000 to 178 today - and a deficit she estimates at $75,000 to $80,000.

Tobias said the school will encourage pupils to move to St. Katharine or SS. James and John, other East Baltimore schools that are along public bus routes.

"I don't think it would create too much of a hardship," said Tobias, who explained that her school does not provide bus service.

The decision to close Bishop Neumann and Holy Spirit grew out of recommendations from a task force created last summer to study the future of the archdiocese's education system - the first system-wide examination in 15 years. Like other urban dioceses on the East Coast, Baltimore faces various challenges, including declining city enrollment, waiting lists at suburban schools and aging buildings - some more than a century and a half old.

Valenti said the task force would continue to evaluate the system, but declined to give more details.

"As we continue to go through the deliberations, we will be sensitive to all the data we receive and make sure the last resort is the closing of a school," Valenti said.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which has 94 schools, serves Baltimore City and Allegany, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard and Washington counties. In recent decades, the archdiocese has shuttered at least 22 city schools.

At Bishop Neumann yesterday, there was a sense of helplessness.

Sitting at her desk, Karko pointed to newly renovated row homes across Foster Street and explained how professional couples who work at Johns Hopkins Hospital or in Canton are replacing families with school-age children that have left for the suburbs.

She spoke of the cost of maintaining the building, which the archdiocese estimates will require $320,000 worth of repairs in the next dozen years.

And then there is the building itself, which is owned by the Redemptorist Fathers, an international religious order, not the archdiocese. Six years ago, in an effort to stabilize enrollment and reduce costs, the archdiocese placed Bishop Neumann under the control of the Southeast Baltimore Catholic Alliance, a consortium of five schools designed to operate as a group and take advantage of bulk purchasing, among other things.

At the end of this school year, the archdiocese will break up the alliance - which it acknowledges has not worked - and take control of the surviving schools. In the hope of saving Bishop Neumann, the archdiocese had asked if the school's former home parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, would take it back, but the pastor has declined.

"The reason I could not see doing that was because it financially was not feasible," said the Very Rev. Gerard Szymkowiak, the church's pastor and a Redemptorist. "If we took that school over, we could not support it because of the collection we get."

The problems afflicting the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the nation's oldest, are rooted in broad demographic and economic changes over the past four decades. The Roman Catholic Church began setting up schools in the United States in earnest in the late 19th century to provide education and pass on Catholic tradition to a growing immigrant population. Enrollment nationwide peaked in 1965 at 5.5 million.

As Catholics climbed the socio-economic ladder, however, they moved from city neighborhoods to the suburbs, leaving many urban schools under-enrolled and under-funded. In the Baltimore archdiocese, enrollment has fallen from nearly 43,000 in 1979 to nearly 37,000 this year.

Education officials here and elsewhere face the challenge of trying to meet the needs of a growing suburban Catholic community while remaining true to one of the church's missions: providing education to the disadvantaged in the nation's cities.

Each year, Catholic schools rely on many millions of dollars from private sources to keep schools open and tuitions down. About one-third of the country's 2.5 million Catholic school students come from low-income and working-class families earning $40,000 or less a year.

In 1996, the Archdiocese of Baltimore created the Partners in Excellence program, which draws donations from the local business community, foundations and citizens to help families pay tuitions at 17 Catholic city schools. The program provides an average of $1,000 per student to offset tuition and has a budget this year of $1.4 million.

Tuition at Bishop Neumann is $3,600 this year, minus books and uniforms. At Holy Spirit, the cost is $3,400. Both are in the Partners program.

News of more school closings this week saddened leaders in the city's Catholic community, who have watched the school system shrink over the decades.

"I think it's a shame," said the Rev. Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul parish downtown. "It's one of the most important services the church renders in the city, which reaches beyond its own boundaries.

"We've been educating poor kids to be middle-class citizens for 150 years," Lawrence added. "I'm always dismayed to find out we are going to be doing less of it."

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