Please Don't Do It, Cardinal Egan

Posted: May 03, 2001 12:00 AM
The announcement this week that the archdiocese of New York is closing three Catholic elementary schools, one each in Manhattan, Dutchess and Ulster County, hit hard.

"I've been here six years. It's heartbreaking," sobbed Monique Thompson, a soon-to-be-former St. Bernard student, to the New York Post. "I don't know where I'll be next year, but I wish it was here." Maria Tabbakh, whose 9-year-old grandson Ali attends St. Bernard, sat slumped on the school steps where a reporter from The New York Times found her. "I don't know where we're going to go," she said.

Father Aldo Fos, pastor of nearby St. Joseph's Catholic Church (and school), waxed rather more philosophic. "I think some schools have to die so others can live more healthy educational lives," he said. "I really believe there is a death-resurrection relationship."

Huh? Of course there are other Catholic schools nearby, but in a country where functioning educational communities with moral and religious values are rarer than a San Clemente Sage Sparrow, why lose even three precious schools?

I know, I know. Money matters. Books must balance, other ministries -- to the sick, the poor, -- must be maintained. Catholic schools can't sit on their subsidies as if they were moral entitlements, no matter what. Still, closing the three grade schools, trusted with educating 460 kindergarten through eighth-grade students, will save just $607,000 a year. Saving these three schools means coming up with an extra $1,300 a student -- or better yet, an extra 200 tuition-paying students in a city of more than 7 million. Surely there must be a better way -- better for the kids and better for God's community, too.

There are lessons here for Catholics -- and anyone who cares about good education -- around the country. The Catholic Church is good at many things, including withstanding moral drift, but it is not good at innovation, thinking outside the box, and such thinking here is clearly called for. If maintaining decaying school buildings in Manhattan, whose land values alone could fund an African AIDS ministry, is just too expensive, then separate the school and the building issues. A school is not mortar and bricks. A school is a community of students, parents and teachers committed to educational excellence, by which I mean lessons in both high scholarship and high character.

If the mortar and bricks are getting in the way of the school, raze 'em. Build a skyscraper or a new condo development. Use the money to lease six classrooms in a nearby Catholic, public or private school that also has enrollment problems. Find new leaders with bigger visions. Once you separate the school and the bricks that house it, many creative possibilities open up.

Bill Bennett has just launched a K-12 Internet-based curriculum -- could a program like that help expand schools in a cost-effective way? Raise tuition for the parents who can afford it, and offer more scholarships. Make tuition for the third child free (thus building enrollment and encouraging larger Catholic families in one stroke).

Each Catholic school community should view itself not as a cost center for the archdiocese but as a growth center with a twin mission of evangelism and education. By evangelism I don't mean only or primarily seeking converts, but forming the next generation of Catholic hearts and minds. That's why consolidating for the sake of efficiency is beside the point. We need more centers to grow more communities to expand Catholic culture.

Cardinal Egan, do not fix problems; pursue opportunities. This is no time to retrench, but a massive opportunity to capitalize on increasing discontent and fear surrounding popular and public school culture. We live in the midst of abundance -- in the richest city in the richest society history has ever known. Perhaps the church hierarchy cannot do it alone. But surely, working together, we can afford to seize it.