News of school closings spawned false reports

Students at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in the Northeast, targeted for closing, rally against the move. The school's teams are the Bambies.
Students at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in the Northeast, targeted for closing, rally against the move. The school's teams are the Bambies. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 10, 2012

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia's announcement that it plans to close 49 schools in June not only produced anger and grief, it spawned rumors and misinformation.

Some of the errors causing the most consternation centered on school appeals and the hiring process for displaced elementary school teachers.

According to some accounts circulating over the weekend, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput had changed his mind and would not review cases where schools believed that the recommended closing was based on factual errors.

Not true, said Donna Farrell, head of the archdiocese's communications office.

"I don't know where that came from about the appeals. I just saw that on a few websites," she said in an e-mail Monday. "But there definitely is an opportunity for appeal."

On Tuesday, she said, the Office of Catholic Education will give pastors and school administrators more details about the review process.

At a meeting with pastors and school administrators at Neumann University on Friday morning, and at a later news conference at which the blue ribbon commission announced its recommendations, Chaput mentioned appeals.

He said that while he trusted the commission's recommendations, schools that believe they were targeted by mistake could ask the Office of Catholic Education for more information about the reasons for the closing recommendation.

If officials were not satisfied with that response, Chaput said, he would listen, but schools should bring issues to him before March 25, when the names of the new regional elementary schools are to be announced.

He said Friday that while he had great trust in the recommendations made by the 16-member commission, "sometimes commissions that study issues make mistakes."

"And it may be that our analysis of the situation can be corrected," he said. "So if there are issues of fact that people can bring forward at schools and they want to make sure that I know that, I'll be happy to hear their concerns."

Several schools, such as St. Laurentius in Fishtown, and alumni groups are preparing letters outlining errors they felt the commission made, such as using outdated enrollment and deficit figures.

On another front, Catholic elementary school teachers were in turmoil about their job prospects.

The archdiocese said Friday that 45 elementary schools would close and consolidate with other schools to create regional schools.

In all, the move affects 1,700 teachers at more than 80 schools - just over half of the 156 schools now operating. Staff at all 80-plus schools will have to reapply for positions at the new regional schools, Superintendent Mary Rochford said.

Because elementary teachers are not unionized, she said, seniority will not be a factor.

"Applications will be accepted and judged based on qualifications," the archdiocese said on its website.

Already upset about the closings and dislocation, many teachers were further riled by reports that they would be required to resign in order to apply for jobs at the regional schools. If they resigned and were not chosen for jobs at the regional schools, teachers feared they would be barred from applying for unemployment compensation.

"That is what most people were screaming about," said one veteran elementary school teacher whose school in the Northeast is being consolidated with another.

Although elementary teachers are not unionized, many asked for help from Rita Schwartz, president of the union that represents the archdiocesan high school teachers.

"They have no one to turn to," Schwartz said.

She told them not to resign for fear it could undermine their chances of collecting unemployment compensation if they don't find jobs.

The Northeast elementary teacher and others said their principals and pastors had told them they would not even be considered for the new posts unless they resigned.

That, too, is incorrect.

"I think someone may have misspoken at the Neumann meeting," Farrell said.

"We will definitely not be asking our teachers to resign," Farrell said. "All the employees in the affected schools will technically lose their positions at the end of the school year, since both schools will cease to exist. A number of those employees will be reemployed in the newly formed schools.

"The remainder will be considered to be terminated from employment due to their school being closed and position being eliminated. In no way has requiring staff to resign ever been considered or discussed on our end."

Any archdiocesan employee who loses a job is free to apply for unemployment, Farrell said. The state Department of Labor and Industry determines the claims.

Farrell said the archdiocese plans to provide information to the department regarding teachers who lose their jobs and are not hired at the new schools.

She said the archdiocese would "do everything in our power to be proactive on their behalf to help make certain that they receive any benefits under unemployment that they should be entitled to receive."

Elementary teachers said they expect to learn more about the job-application process at the regional schools later this week.


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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