"They would say, 'I can make this work,' " Quindlen said. "But we had to come along and finally say, 'God bless you, but this has got to stop.' "
Among the highlights and consequences of the plan:
29 percent of the archdiocese's elementary schools and 24 percent of its secondary schools will close in June.
More than 80 elementary schools serving 21,000 pupils will be affected, either closing or being consolidated in schools with new names and, in many cases, new administrators.
Between 1,500 and 1,700 teachers at schools soon to close or consolidate will be put out of work. Elementary school teachers must apply for employment at the consolidated schools; high school teachers, who are unionized, will follow a process based on seniority.
Distraught students, angry parents, and displaced teachers were quick to denounce the panel's sweeping recommendations as "callous" and "insensitive." But Quindlen, a former chief financial officer for DuPont Co., said the commission's "chief constituency" as it deliberated for 13 months was "the young parents who are starting their children in first grade, and who want to see them graduate eighth grade from the same school."
By closing and consolidating schools, establishing a new governance system for Catholic education, lobbying Pennsylvania lawmakers for school vouchers and more education tax credits that are used for scholarships, and creating a donor-based fund to support schools financially, closings of this magnitude "should never happen again," he said.
The panel was commissioned in December 2010 by Cardinal Justin Rigali, Chaput's predecessor as archbishop. It reported to Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees archdiocesan schools.
"The first thing I asked Bishop Fitzgerald is, 'Is this already decided?' " Quindlen said, referring to the number and choice of schools to be closed. "And he said, 'Absolutely not.' So we had a free hand to write our own mission statement."
The panel's first meeting "didn't even have an agenda," he said, and the first few meetings were "pretty esoteric, with our feet on the table, trying to figure out what we needed to do." Even before they began studying school closings, they surprised themselves by devising a fundamental makeover for governance of the school system.
The new governance structure calls for a five-member executive board headed by the auxiliary bishop for education and composed of one representative each for elementary schools, secondary schools, special education, and religious education. Each of those four entities will also have its own board, and each of the five counties in the archdiocese will have advisory councils to those boards. A board for secondary schools already exists; the boards for elementary, special education, and religious education are new.
Quindlen said in the interview and at the news conference no school-closing decision was based on real estate values. Chaput noted in his remarks that most of the elementary school buildings were the property of parishes, which can decide whether to sell closed schools and which can retain the proceeds. He said some of the proceeds from the sale of the high schools, which the archdiocese owns, would be earmarked for education.
Choosing which schools to close was not governed by their proportion of Catholic students, commission member H. Edward Hanway said at the news conference. Among the commission's guiding principles, he said, was that "we would look to the needs of Catholic students, but pay attention to anyone desiring Catholic education." Several of the Philadelphia schools that will stay open, Hanway said, have a larger non-Catholic presence than some that will close. "We feel very strongly that we have a commitment to that population," he said.
The commission did call, however, for an enhanced commitment to Catholic religious education across the five counties, and especially in parishes without elementary schools. It has called for every parish to have its own paid, professional director of Christian education, an increase from 30 to 40 hours annually of religious education, and adequate classroom space in every parish, even those without a school building.
Commission member Eleanor Dezzi, who joined Quindlen for the interview, said the new school governance panels would soon call on parents and teachers and others concerned about the future of Catholic education in Pennsylvania to lobby the legislature for state-funded vouchers that families can use to help pay for private schools. "It's a social-justice issue," she said. Chaput endorsed that plan enthusiastically, saying at the news conference, "If we had had vouchers in place, we'd probably not be closing" so many schools.
More school closings may happen in years to come, Quindlen conceded in the interview, but he predicted they would be rare and would result from highly localized population declines.
"I think that in two years or so, we may actually start to see the [school population] numbers start to rise, and that we can go 10 or 15 years without closing another school. I sure hope I live long enough to see it."
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or email@example.com.