Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Strategic Planning

It's the ultimate ecclesial no-win -- taking a century-old infrastructure and adapting it to the realities of this time and the road ahead.

And like it or not, that just so happens to be the order of these days here in the Northeast and the earlier settlements of the Midwest, as no shortage of dioceses proceed with (or brace for) efforts to reconfigure their maps of parishes and schools for Catholic populations that, in luckier cases, may have remained constant inside diocesan boundaries, but have still dramatically shifted within them since the institutions that served the great-grandparents of today's faithful were built.

As some might've noticed, one word is conspicuous by its absence above: "close," or "consolidate." Of course, that's how most folks experience changes of the sort -- and why at least one bishop's mail features the occasional photo of his head superimposed on the Grim Reaper's body.

While the raw emotions of losing a place that feels like a family member will never be completely eased, there are ways of handling the process well. Two of those are in the news this week... and both from places easily considered among the Stateside church's most venerable bastions.

First, having spent close to $10 million to prop up some below-capacity schools just since 2008 and a year after Archbishop Edwin O'Brien empaneled a lay-dominated "Blue Ribbon" commission to take soundings, crunch the data and hash out a feasible long-range framework, the Premier See of Baltimore announced late today that thirteen of its seventy Catholic schools will shut their doors come June.

While the Maryland mother-church had previously practiced the piecemeal closing a handful of schools each year -- a combined 16 between 2002 and 2009 -- O'Brien moved for the comprehensive review on judging that "the process of watching schools succumb one by one, year after year to population shifts and other external forces can no longer continue."

A full press conference won't come until tomorrow morning, but such are the times that the first word of the schools impacted trickled out on Facebook pages and blog posts. For all the rest, the local Sun outlines the steps being taken to ease the pain:
The reorganization will displace 2,152 students and 325 teachers, staff and administrators. The displaced students, who make up nearly 10 percent of the 22,700 students in the system, will be guaranteed a spot in a school no more than five miles from their current school, but it's not yet clear how many employees will lose their jobs.

"I wish there were a painless way to do this," Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, spiritual leader of the area's half million Catholics, said in an interview this week. "It's going to be quite painful. It's going to have a ripple effect beyond what we can predict."

He said the reorganization, to incorporate recommendations to be published in a long-term strategy report in June, represents an effort to "stop and regroup" in the face of chronic financial problems that have threatened to destroy the system one school closing at a time.

"If we keep this up in a dozen years we won't have a school system," O'Brien said....

A report on the consolidation designates 24 so-called receiving schools to accept students from the schools that are closing.

Monsignor Bob Hartnett, who directed the work on the consolidation, said some displaced students would be traveling slightly less distance to their nearest new school than they are now, some slightly more. He said the average distance between any closed school and any of its receiving schools is less than three miles. Students make their own way to school, as the archdiocese does not provide transportation.

Average tuition at archdiocesan elementary schools is $5,200 for parishioners and $6,300 for non-parishioners. At current rates, the archdiocese says, the average tuition for the receiving schools is $132 less than the schools that will be closing.

Hartnett said all 1,500 families affected by the changes will get a call in the next few days to see if they need help with the transition, then a follow-up call, then another call during the summer. He said "response teams" will be sent to schools on Thursday to answer employees' questions.

Hiring patterns of the last three years suggest that many of the 231 teachers and 94 staff and administrators who are displaced in the consolidation will be able to find jobs in the system. Last August, for instance, the archdiocese hired 145 teachers and 150 staff. The year before, it hired 118 teachers and 189 staff.

O'Brien said the archdiocese will work with local public schools to try to find jobs for employees who cannot be placed within the archdiocesan system. In the meantime, health and dental benefits for the 325 displaced employees will be extended through August.

"We'll do everything we can to help those people," O'Brien said. "We have such dedicated men and women who are going to be out of work for awhile."

The consolidation plan has been in the works since last spring, shortly after O'Brien announced that he was launching an effort to confront what he considered a "crisis" in the school system. He emphasized his commitment to guarantee every current student a spot, and to sustain the system without abandoning the city. But he said that the archdiocese had to run the schools differently if it wanted them to stay open and maintain academic standards.
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Meanwhile, facing the dire prospect of fiscal "insolvency" come next year -- and already in the midst of heavy administrative cuts -- earlier today saw Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn meet with his pastors to launch a "reinvention" process that, at its higher projections, could see the close or merger of a quarter of the 1.6 million-member diocese's 198 parishes.

Home to what might well be American Catholicism's most diverse local church, one ever renewed by a steady stream of immigrants, the "city of churches" currently keeps close to half of its parishes buoyed by means of diocesan subsidies that, last year, totaled $5 million -- "a sum that can no longer be sustained," DiMarzio wrote in a freshly-released pastoral letter on the process.

(On a side-note, the pastoral likewise raised eyebrows for the first magisterial document to use the word "tweets.")

With diocesan officials pledging "full transparency," plans afoot for town meeting-style consultations and even, in time, a publicly-viewable internet forum for parishioners' voices to be heard (and, indeed, that should be something), the 66 year-old prelate -- famous for his hard-charging ways -- has already been observed as taking a hands-off role to the process, with officials heavily underscoring that the soundings (including a threefold study of each parish's "pastoral, financial and leadership" viability) will be heard in full before any deliberations are made. Along these lines, the diocese ended up closing just seven schools last year -- a number significantly less than had been foreseen.

The bulk of its legwork entrusted to DiMarzio's sharp 51 year-old right hand, Auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano, and its conclusions targeted for a September announcement, the Brooklyn process still takes a back-seat in prominence to the biggest decision looming over the New York area's three dioceses: the impending verdict of a tri-see commission charged with considering options for the consolidation of the four major and collegiate seminaries of New York, Brooklyn and Rockville Centre.

As of last report, plans were full steam ahead toward a unified game-plan for the future of the houses -- Gotham's St Joseph's and Neumann Residence at Dunwoodie; Rockville Centre's Immaculate Conception, Huntingdon, and Brooklyn's Cathedral College, Douglaston -- with the most equitable solution topping the buzzmill's forecast of the result.

An announcement is expected before the close of this academic year, with implementation reportedly slated for after the 2010-11 cycle.

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And lastly, closest to home, by no means is the vaunted River City church immune to the regional trends... if anything, this greatest of ecclesiastical empires being what it once was, the fallout may be even more pronounced 'round these parts.

Keeping with recent patterns, at least seven elementary schools will close or consolidate here come June's end. Still, the most "unmerciful" blow of all came back in October on the announcement that two of the onetime crown jewels of the diocesan system -- Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic High Schools -- will shut their doors.

Now reduced to an aggregate student-body of 1,100 -- a tenth of their combined peak enrollments -- the heydays of both Dougherty and North saw each bear the crown of the largest secondary school in the global church.

PHOTO: Jed Kirschbaum/Baltimore Sun