Monday, August 3, 2015

An economist looks at Catholic school closings

Villanova Prof. Peter Zaleski asks Philadelphia's Cardinal to run more numbers before dooming Bonner and Prendergast high schools

An economist looks at Catholic school closings

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Re the Archdiocese of Philadelphia report recommending 49 school closings:

Peter Zaleski PhD, a 25-year veteran professor of economics at Villanova University who has co-written papers on "the economics of churches," has sent Archbishop Chaput a respectful letter questioning the "economic sense" of closing the two Upper Darby-area high schools, Monsignor Bonner (boys) and Archbishop Prendergast (girls). One of his sons is a Bonner grad, but Zaleski's children are now grown, he told Chaput, "so I do not have a personal stake."

Among the economist's points: 

- The "capacity" ratio used as one tool to measure whether buildings are under-used relies on an unrealistic denominator. The report estimates Bonner/Prendergast's top potential enrollment at more than 3,000. Based on his own visits to the schools, Zaleski says that ought to be lower. With nearly 1,000 students now enrolled, a more realistic calculation could put the schools closer to the archdiocese target of 54% capacity, even without students who might transfer from similarly doomed West Catholic.

- Why not close one building and move everyone into the other, as the Archdiocese did in South Philadelphia by merging St. Maria Goretti (girls) and St. John Neumann (boys)? This would address another of the report's findings: high operating costs at the aging Bonner/Prendie campus, partly a result of years of deferred maintenance. 

- The report's focus on falling "feeder school" enrollment at nearby parish schools is less relevant now that the Archdiocese has removed school enrollment district boundaries; many of today's Catholic high school students went to non-Catholic grade schools.

Zaleski also notes that Bonner/Prendie is less distant from West Catholic (also targeted for closing) than other surviving suburban high schools like Archbishop Carroll or Cardinal O'Hara. (Carroll was a focus of school-closing talk in the middle 2000s but was saved when an alumni committee raised cash and helped boost enrollment. I've heard similar points from alumni of the former North Catholic who worry that their school lost clout after rival Roman Catholic mobilized its graduates, and the resources of the Cahill foundation, to prevent Roman's threatened closure a decade ago.)

Zaleski also notes that Carroll, which abuts the Radnor train station close to the Radnor Financial Center office park, might be an easier property to sell than the more urban high schools. Not, he adds, that he's recommending closing Carroll; just that such comparative factors, which he says are absent from the report, make the Bonner/Prendie closing seem less justifiable on purely economic grounds.

Both Chaput and one of his aides "responded very promptly and cordially," Zaleski tells me. Maybe there's stills something to hope for. (Revised)

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PhillyDeals posts drafts, transcripts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area business, which he's been writing since 1989.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn and taught writing at St. Joseph's. He has written thousands of columns and articles for the Inquirer, Bloomberg and other media, wrote the book Comcasted, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com, distefano251@gmail.com, 215.854.5194 or 302.652.2004.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

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