Saved schools' victory is only for now

A welcome reprieve that saved four Catholic high schools from being closed seemed like a miracle to fearful students. But now they and their parents are looking for divine intervention to solve the archdiocese’s long-term budgeting woes.

Just last month, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput revealed his decision to shutter the high schools and 45 elementary schools in June. Fund-raising saved 18 elementary schools, but the high schools appeared doomed until $12 million in donations and pledges poured in last week. Chaput announced Friday that all four would remain open. The reprieve speaks volumes about all the parents, students, and supporters who rallied to save the schools. The archbishop said nearly 20,000 financial donations were received, many from everyday working people.

Archbishop Prendergast juniors (from left) Kelly Hanlon, Tricia Jennings, and Kaitlyn Lanovale hug after learning that their school in Delaware County will remain open. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

Developer J. Brian O’Neill, who said he had promised his dying mother he would help the Roman Catholic Church, led the campaign and helped recruit 10 anonymous major donors. O’Neill’s involvement becomes even more extraordinary when one considers that he never attended any of the archdiocesan schools but is a strong believer in Catholic education.

Chaput’s announcement ended weeks of angst for students and staff at St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg, Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills, Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill, and the city’s West Catholic High. At least 141 jobs will be saved.

The schools were targeted for closure as part of a sweeping plan to ensure the continued viability of Catholic education in Philadelphia, which has been threatened in recent years by declining enrollment and changing demographics. H. Edward Hanway, a member of the commission that recommended the closures, called their reprieve “the dawn of a new era in Catholic education in the Archdiocese.” It is not clear whether the six elementary schools still designated for closure will get a pardon.

Chaput rightly tempered all the jubilation now being expressed with a sobering reminder that the reprieve may prove only temporary. Since 2001, enrollment has plunged 34 percent in archdiocesan high schools and 38 percent in elementary schools. An independent, permanent foundation will be created and charged with the monumental task of raising $100 million in the next five years to help Catholic schools. But their continued survival may have more to do with two proposals that are not in the hands of the church to decide.

The legislature is considering bills to expand the state’s educational tax-credit program and provide vouchers that students could use to attend private schools. Passage of the voucher bill, in particular, is no slam dunk. It would take funds away from public schools that can ill afford to see their budgets further reduced. The leaders of both the public and parochial school systems need to combine their intellects to find mutually beneficial solutions.