2 districts, 2 approaches to thinning schools, both with flaws

Posted: February 16, 2012

THE DECISION will come tomorrow, a Friday, because that's when you announce bad news. For the vast majority of 49 Catholic schools that the Archdiocese has recommended closing, the news will be bad.

Their schools will be shuttered for good in June and thousands will have to figure out where they're going to school next year.

A few will likely be spared after raising millions - $5 million for Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast alone - and spending weeks defending themselves to an appeals committee.

For those who care about putting Catholic education on a solid financial footing, this is a good thing.

The problem with the plan isn't about the number of schools closing - major change is needed for a system that has shrunk from 271,088 students in 1960 to 68,000 now. It's about a process completed without enough public input.

The exact opposite is true of the Philadelphia School District's plan to deal with too many buildings for too few students.

The district has done a fantastic job of involving the public, with more than a dozen meetings before the plan was developed and 17 meetings citywide since it was unveiled in November.

But although the district says that it has 40,000 unused "seats," the plan deals with only 14,000. It recommends closing only nine schools in June and reconfiguring grades at 17 others.

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Rumors started to fly last fall: Father Judge is going to close, its land sold! Villanova is going to buy Archbishop Carroll!

The Blue Ribbon Commission formed by then-Cardinal Justin Rigali to study the future of Catholic schools worked behind closed doors and the unknown led many to expect the worst.

When Archbishop Charles Chaput received the commission's recommendations to close 45 elementary schools and four high schools - Carroll and Judge aren't on the list - parents and students were shellshocked.

Eleanor Dezzi, a 1965 West Catholic graduate, political consultant and member of the commission, backs the process. (Her alma mater is closing.)

She points to thousands of surveys filled out last spring, the work the commission did reaching out to stakeholders from philanthropists to parents, and myriad meetings to review data.

"I think we sought a lot of input, and took a lot of things under advisement," Dezzi says. "We were looking at [Catholic education] for the next decade and more. . . . We did not operate in a vacuum."

But angry parents from schools slated for closure say they weren't kept in the loop or, worse, that the Archdiocese relied on bad information in some cases.

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The Philadelphia School District has lost 50,000 students in the last decade and seriously needs to consolidate some of its more than 400 buildings.

The plan offered to the School Reform Commission in November is only a start.

But after a strong public process, it raises the question: Why start so small?

Danielle Floyd, district deputy for strategic initiatives - who deserves a ton of credit for involving the public - says that the district would be questioned either way.

"I don't think there's any way you go into this that there's a consensus that you did this, quote-unquote, the right way," she said. "There's no good way of doing this."

Maybe not, but with the district in such financial straits, now is the time for big changes, not a small incremental process that would mean spending time and money going back to the drawing board year after year.

SRC Commissioner Wendell Pritchett's first reaction to the plan was that "we need to do more." But Pritchett points out that managing facilities is tied to constantly changing circumstances, from enrollment to neighborhood demographics and the district must be nimble.

The reality is that now is the time for big changes. Something the Archdiocese realizes, even if it should have done more to get the public involved.

"It's almost like dying a thousand deaths and everyone waits on the edge of their seat," Dezzi said of the Archdiocese's old policy of making piecemeal changes. "That's not a way to do it."

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