Archbishop appoints leaders to schools panel

With many schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore facing declining enrollment and dwindling revenue, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien has appointed two prominent local Catholic figures to help enact his plan of reinvigorating the Catholic schools.

Monsignor Robert L. Hartnett, pastor of Essex’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and local businessman Frank P. Bramble have been tapped to take leadership roles on a blue ribbon panel that will dedicate 18 months to a strategic plan that could drastically alter Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

“(The archbishop) has received information, demographics, finances and reports on facilities that really crystallized for him that there really is a challenge,” said Monsignor Richard W. Woy, chief operating officer of the Catholic Center. “Our schools are declining in enrollment, they’re becoming expensive to run and tuition is increasing. So, he’s determined that one of his legacies will be leaving a vibrant, viable Catholic school system.”

Monsignor Hartnett was assigned the title of executive director of school planning and will head up two February consultation meetings with archdiocesan parish priests and school administrators. He was named 2008 pastor of the year by the archdiocesan division of Catholic schools after his work in overseeing his parish’s elementary school and high school.

Mr. Bramble, the retired vice chairman of MBNA America, will chair the blue ribbon committee. He is inviting business and community leaders to join.

The mission is to develop a strategic plan for all schools under a vision headed by the archbishop.

“We really haven’t come up with a strategic formula that changes the paradigm,” Mr. Bramble said of past efforts. “Instead of hearing about a school closing down, we want to hear about a school thriving and growing and moving forward.”

The first consultation meeting will take place Feb. 10 with parish priests at St. John the Evangelist in Columbia. Principals and administrators will gather two days later at the church. Dr. Ronald J. Valenti, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, will also attend the meetings.

Like many Catholic school systems around the country, Baltimore has seen a sharp decline in enrollment. In his column in the Nov. 27 issue of The Catholic Review, the archbishop cited an archdiocesan enrollment drop of five percent (1,200 students) over the last four years. The archbishop mentioned that 46 schools have seen declining enrollment in the last year, which could result in an average loss of $87,000 in revenue per school.

The archdiocese of Baltimore is not alone in facing the Catholic school challenge. Many dioceses have similar problems, such as in New York, where the Archdiocese of Brooklyn recently announced it would be closing 14 elementary schools. Brooklyn lost 20,000 students between 1998 and 2008.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced late in 2008 the spring closing of Frostburg’s St. Michael School after 117 years of operation.

Monsignor Harnett, whose own education included the parish school at St. Michael the Archangel in Overlea and The Cardinal Gibbons School in Baltimore, acknowledged the possibilities of further closings or school consolidations.

“My primary concern is that Catholic education remains viable for as many people as possible,” Monsignor Hartnett said. “Does that mean some difficult decisions are going to have to be made? Obviously. Perhaps places that I care for, but there’s a greater mission and a great challenge to address. I think we all have to be willing to do that.”

Monsignor Hartnett will split his time between Mount Carmel and the archdiocese headquarters and resign as vicar forane for Eastern Baltimore County.

Mr. Bramble said he is seeking leaders for the blue-ribbon committee, which he hopes will develop innovative strategies.

“In order to do that, we feel we need a group that is well-rounded in various experiences – not just Catholic experiences,” Mr. Bramble said. “We also need some of the business community people from various parts of the state to understand the ongoing regulatory issues of the state, all of which we think will help us as well.

There will be religious represented in the group because we want to make sure we’re true to our evangelization responsibilities. So, we’re pretty excited.”

Mr. Bramble said the call to save Catholic schools might be one of his biggest challenges. As a graduate student of St. Ambrose in Park Heights, Towson’s Calvert Hall College High School, Loyola College in Maryland and a former parent of St. Pius X School students, he values what Catholic schools provide.

“This was an easy yes when I was asked to do it,” he said. “I can’t think of anything much more important than what these Catholic schools do.”

Monsignor Woy said Catholic schools must chart a new course in the 21st Century.

“The Catholic school system in the United States has been one of the best stories of the church,” he said. “We’re in a different environment and a different world. I think we have to envision the schools different so that they have a bright future.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.