Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Urgent review' coming for Archdiocesan Catholic schools

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As part of its reorganization, the Twin Cities archdiocese is evaluating 10 schools "most on the edge'' and wants them to make their case to stay open.

At least 10 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are under "urgent review" by church officials as part of the archdiocese's historic reorganization efforts. Not all of the schools are expected to close, but some may.

The schools have until the middle of this month to present their case to the archdiocese in support of remaining open. Archbishop John Nienstedt will consider the recommendations and make a decision in January.

"They [10 schools] are the ones that are most on the edge in terms of their enrollment and financial viability," said archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath. "But no decisions have been made. Obviously if a school is deemed to be not viable because of enrollment and financial potential, then some action will have to be taken."

The archdiocese declined to name all the schools, but confirmed that three include St. Francis-St. James United in St. Paul, as well as Our Lady of the Prairie in Belle Plaine and St. Bernard's in Cologne.

The archdiocese currently has 98 schools with a total enrollment of nearly 34,000 students. About 3,800 full-time employees work in the archdiocese, the majority of them in schools. McGrath said it has not been determined if there will be any layoffs at the schools.

The school changes are part of the largest reorganization in the archdiocese's nearly 160-year history, which is aimed at dealing with a projected priest shortage, tighter budgets and shifting demographics.

In October, the archdiocese released a plan calling for 21 parishes to merge into other parishes. Another 33 parishes will join new cluster configurations in which one pastor will lead two or more parishes. After the mergers are completed, there will be a total of 192 parishes. Archdiocesan officials say structural changes won't begin before January and will take place over several years.

Gail Rappe, principal at St. Francis-St. James United in St. Paul, said she believes the K-8 school will be able to show it's viable because it has a balanced budget and enrollment is up from 72 students last year to 87 this year.

She expects enrollment to continue to go up, in part driven by the increasing number of Hispanics joining the Twin Cities archdiocese.

"I was not surprised we were put on this list," Rappe said. "We are a changing neighborhood. People aren't having as many children as they did before. But we'll be fine. Personally, I would find that [school closing] hard to believe."

The archdiocese is looking to reorganize schools, partly because nearly 20 percent of them receive subsidies from the archdiocese, and there are approximately 20 percent more seats than students.

"While local school leaders and the Archdiocese recognize the urgent review process may cause stress for parents, staff, and other school community members, the process is vital to strengthening Catholic schools as a whole in this Archdiocese," the archdiocese said in a statement released on Friday.

Earlier this week, Nienstedt announced more changes in the archdiocese as a result of the economic downturn. The pension plan for archdiocesan employees will be frozen on Jan. 31, 2011, which means employees' pension retirement benefits will be calculated based on eligible years of service and salary history as of that date.

In a letter to pension plan participants, Nienstedt said the pension plan has lost value in the economic downturn, creating a funding shortfall. Star Tribune

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