Archbishop calls summit to plan successful future of Catholic schools

In the wake of declining enrollment and increasing financial challenges, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien is convening a January education summit of priests to help strengthen Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Parents and other supporters of Catholic education will also be invited to participate in the process, Archbishop O’Brien said.

The archbishop announced the summit in his weekly column in The Catholic Review (see page 4), while also outlining recent enrollment and financial trends in archdiocesan schools. He previously shared the data with his closest priest advisors during a November meeting of the Presbyteral Council.

In conjunction with the summit, the archbishop formed an education-related pastors advisory committee to help him plan for the future. Members of the advisory committee met twice among themselves and once with the Presbyteral Council.

In his column, Archbishop O’Brien reported that enrollment is down 5 percent this school year – twice the average rate of decline over the previous five years. The most recent enrollment loss represents approximately 1,200 students or the equivalent of four schools.

Forty-six elementary and secondary schools lost students, Archbishop O’Brien said, and each could experience an estimated average loss of $87,000 in revenue.

The archbishop also noted that by year’s end, Catholic schools will owe an estimated $9.3 million for insurance premiums they are unable to pay.

Despite an estimated $3.8 million which archdiocesan Central Services will have extended to schools by the end of the year, Archbishop O’Brien said, well more than half of them will still be in serious financial trouble.

Noting that Catholic schools have long faced challenges with declining enrollment and increased tuition, the archbishop said the faltering national economy has compounded the problem – posing “an immediate threat to the sustainability of many of our Catholic schools.”

“We find ourselves at a critical juncture in the history of Catholic schools, one that offers us the exciting opportunity of dynamic innovation: to provide the same quality Catholic education of yesterday while responding to the changing challenges of today and tomorrow,” Archbishop O’Brien said.

Dr. Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools, said the upcoming summit will provide an opportunity for continued strategic planning. Effectively dealing with the challenges will take an increased focus on collaboration, he said.

“We must impress on the entire archdiocese that this is really something for which we must share responsibility,” he said. “It just can’t be on the backs of parents who send their children to Catholic schools. We need everyone to help make sure that what we have in this great legacy is maintained.”

Dr. Valenti hopes Maryland will provide increased aid to nonpublic schools. He is particularly interested in passing a business tax credit called BOAST – “Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers in Maryland.”

“It’s not a magic bullet,” he said, “but it can provide some of the support we need. It’s going to take persistence and tenacity to get it passed.”

Redemptorist Father Kevin Milton, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima in East Baltimore and a member of the pastors advisory committee, agreed that increased collaboration will be a hallmark of any successful strategy.

Our Lady of Fatima School was on the verge of closing last year, Father Milton said. Thanks to a partnership with The Johns Hopkins University, the school developed a plan to make improvements like increasing its focus on math and science. The plan worked and the school was able to maintain its enrollment at 151.

“We’re going to need more twinning with universities and higher education,” said Father Milton, who also cited the partnership between St. Mary of the Assumption School in Govans and Loyola College in Maryland as a success model for strengthening Catholic education.

Father Milton said there is a need for a comprehensive plan to determine where there is a need for Catholic education. It may require some reconfiguration of schools, he said, but he emphasized that it’s “not a time to panic.”

“It’s not the end of the schools,” he said.

Father Keith Boisvert, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel in Frederick and a member of the pastors advisory committee, said parents at the inter-parish St. John Regional Catholic School in Frederick are also faced with the challenge of high tuition. Both the mother and a father of one student recently lost their jobs, he said, requiring the school to work with the family to help keep the student enrolled.

“The impact of the economy goes all across the economic spectrum,” he said.

Father Boisvert said parishes work hard to provide financial aid, but the economy is putting increased burdens on the ability to offer assistance. In Frederick, which is experiencing explosive growth, many parishes are trying to build new churches, parish centers and other facilities.

“The parish budgets are really stretched,” he said.

Father Christopher Whatley, pastor of St. Mark in Catonsville and a member of the pastors advisory committee, said there is a need for increased cooperation between parishes with schools and those without.

“I think we have to have a sharing of resources and facilities,” he said. “We have to be able to provide as much quality Catholic education to as many children as possible across the archdiocese and understand that in the urban areas parents are hungry for more Catholic education.”

Catholic Review

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