Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Two versions of history

Yesterday I put up A tale of two bishops contrasting the approach taken by Bishop John D'arcy with that of Bishop Matthew Clark when both were faced with declining enrollment and increasing costs in their Catholic schools. Both appointed committees to examine the situation and make recommendations. Bishop Clark accepted his committee's advice to close about half his schools. Bishop D'Arcy received similar advice, but chose instead to give his laity the opportunity to find a way to save their schools.

One of the comments to that post raised several points that deserve more than a combox response. That comment is reproduced below, followed by my reply.

Actually, Bishop Clark and the education department was trying for years to get more support for the schools. The Wegman fund delayed closings. The hope was that people would come forward to begin providing more support before it did run out. A few did, but not enough.

While I don't exonerate the diocese in this situation - Bishop Clark could have done more, and I agree, he should have given some parents an opportunity to try to keep their schools open - I also saw too many parents who opted to send their kids to public schools, and other folks who failed to increase support for Catholic schools. This helped to lead to the problems.

In some cases - though certainly not all - some parents sat back and did nothing for years despite warnings and other closings and only started paying attention when THEIR school was slated for closing.

And then there are the folks who cut off financial support for the diocese because they were upset at something that was done, not done, or not done the way they wanted it done, or who constantly bad mouthed the bishop and the diocese and helped to inspire other people to reduce or cut off their support. That certainly did not help the situation any.

There's lots of blame to go around.

Well, that's one way to tell the story. Here is another ...

On Thursday evening, November 14, 2002 over 250 people attended a parent feedback meeting at Bishop Kearney High School. The topic under discussion was a diocesan proposal to more closely base Catholic school tuition on family income.

At the heart of that proposal was the notion that wealthier families should be paying more out-of-pocket to help support poorer ones. Of course, precisely who was “wealthier” and who was “poorer” would be determined by the diocese.

According to a D&C article appearing the following morning, there was virtual unanimity among those parents that such a proposal would only drive substantial numbers of children out of our Catholic schools. When MCCS Superintendent Sister Elizabeth Meegan asked the group, “There have to be some people in here that will be helped by the new system?” she got no response.

We all know the ultimate outcome. Bishop Clark totally ignored the input of those parents, in the process allowing Sister Elizabeth's ideology to trump what should have been blindingly obvious reality, and gave his blessing to her tuition plan.

As one parent later reported, “Our tuition increased by over 40%. … Many families couldn't afford the increase, few families qualified for adequate financial aid and the enrollment of our schools went on a downfall.” Yes, I'm sure some of those families could have afforded the increased cost and stayed in the system, but the reports I have heard confirm that most could not.

For the record, when Sister Elizabeth arrived in DOR in 2001 enrollment was at 7,127. When she left 5 years later it was down to 4,806. 2,321 children (32.6%) had left the system in a mere 5 years. (How she ever landed another job is an utter mystery to me.)

I bring up this sad story because it effectively puts the lie to the claim that Bishop Clark “was trying for years to get more support for the schools,” unless, of course, what is meant is purely financial support. And if that is what is meant, I'm not surprised he couldn't find another Daddy Warbucks – or Daddy Wegman. What sane philanthropist would be willing to pour money into a school system that refused to listen to its parents, that refused to even attempt to get them involved in any significant way?

That parent meeting at Bishop Kearney should have been a eureka moment for our bishop. Not only should he have learned that Sister Elizabeth's plan would spell disaster for our schools, but also that there were at least 250 parents who cared deeply enough about their Catholic schools to tell him so.

Those 250 parents could have formed the nucleus of a group that would have explored and developed new ways to stabilize and even grow our school system, if only challenged. They may even have succeeded. But we will never know, as Matthew Clark never issued that challenge.

Stewardship is one of those proverbial three-legged stools. While the treasure leg is important, so also are the time and talent legs. Bishop Clark has a long history of asking us for our treasure, while at the same time ignoring our time and, especially, our talent. He has his inner corps of confidants - what I have termed elsewhere “the well-off and the well-connected” - and seems to have no conception that any idea not emerging from that closed circle might just have real merit.

In other words, Bishop Clark has chosen to effectively insulate himself from the majority of his flock. The price for that folly has been enormous.

Finally, if by those “who constantly bad mouthed the bishop and the diocese and helped to inspire other people to reduce or cut off their support” the writer is referring to me, then he is giving me far more credit than I deserve. I'm sorry to report that I get far too few hits on this blog to have any substantial effect on diocesan finances. He will have to look elsewhere for that particular scapegoat.

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