Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Catholic school realignment leaves winners, losers in St. Paul, Dakota County


A plan by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to consolidate Catholic schools on St. Paul's West Side and in northern Dakota County keeps changing, with the latest twist leaving members of one parish proclaiming a "Christmas miracle" and members of another crying foul.

Holy Trinity in South St. Paul is the latest school to escape being absorbed into a new regional school that the archdiocese is planning to combat falling enrollment, financial stress and aging facilities at five parish schools. The decision was announced to parishioners at a recent Christmas event.

"I can't tell you how many people have described this as a Christmas miracle," said the Rev. John Echert, who appealed the decision to close the school on behalf of parents and church leaders. "That's how strongly they felt about this."

But the move has upset some members of St. Matthew's School on St. Paul's West Side who say the entire "realignment" plan has been convoluted and lacked a clear vision from the start.

The confusion has made it hard for members of St. Matthew's to see how they will fit into a regional school without losing their neighborhood ties.

"The whole realignment is a joke," said Brian Osborne, a longtime member of St. Matthew's. "They don't know what they are doing. How can a billion-dollar company be so dysfunctional?"

The initial plans that were announced had five schools - St. Joseph's, St. Michael's, St. Matthew's, Holy Trinity and St. John Vianney merging into two regional campuses.

St. Joseph's in West St. Paul quickly won an appeal to remain a parish school, and now with Holy Trinity staying open, the remaining three parish schools will form one regional campus at St. Michael's in West St. Paul.

Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the archdiocese, said that after the initial plans were announced, members of Holy Trinity and St. Joseph felt their schools were still "viable" on their own. Any appearance of confusion was unintended.

"Organizations change direction all the time, if there is reason for it," McGrath said. "We are not a dictatorship."

McGrath acknowledged the emotions involved in consolidating schools with long-standing community ties. Changing population demographics and enrollments make it necessary to consolidate schools such as St. Michael, St. Matthew and St. John Vianney.

"It makes sense and they will be a stronger school going forward," McGrath said, noting the age and repairs needed at locations such as St. Matthew. "It would be irresponsible to keep a school like that going."

There currently are 361 students at the three parish schools to be consolidated. If the students won't all fit at St. Michael's, the archdiocese will find a way to accommodate them, McGrath said.

The archdiocese said in October that the "common sense plan" was recommended by a task force made up of pastors, principals and stakeholders and came after six months of "intensive discussion."

But Glenn Burke, who served on the task force, said the discussion was heavy on local demographics, governance of the new regional school board and administrative costs. It lacked talk about facilities.

"As far as I was concerned, we missed the bigger issues about facilities and finance," he said. "I did not feel that we came to a good, solid decision and made a real recommendation to the archbishop."

He called the recommendation "premature."

"I didn't feel like there was a real good recommendation that came out of the committee to the archbishop," he said. "I understood Holy Trinity and St. John Vianney were going to be consolidated together - that was my feeling - but the question was which was the best facility?"

Burke said St. John Vianney in South St. Paul has fewer classrooms than Holy Trinity but is more up to date with a newer gymnasium and cafeteria and an expanded church lobby.

Holy Trinity has 133 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. St. John Vianney, a K-6 school, has 100 students.

Echert said the initial plan generated "a very passionate response" from Holy Trinity parents and parishioners, many of whom voiced their displeasure at a November meeting attended by the archdiocesan superintendent of schools.

"Over 80 percent of the parents signed a respectful statement to the archbishop which they presented him, indicating that they did not have confidence in the plan as it was proposed," Echert said.

Echert said that he requested that Archbishop John C. Nienstedt reconsider the decision and that the archbishop then directed a formal independent assessment of the Holy Trinity and St. John Vianney buildings.

Burke, who serves on Holy Trinity's school board and has a son enrolled at the school, said he understands the uncertainty that parents and parishioners at St. John Vianney and St. Matthew's are facing.

"We got the bad news a month and a half ago," he said. "It's tough."

Meanwhile, the archdiocese is planning a contest in the three parishes to name the new regional school, McGrath said.

Osborne worries that the regional school will wind up split between St. Michael's and St. John Vianney, leaving St. Matthew's as the only school being closed.

"There are too many unanswered questions," Osborne said. "Too many people just want to know what is going on."


Holy Trinity (South St. Paul) - 133

St. John Vianney (South St. Paul) - 100

St. Joseph's (West St. Paul) - 572

St. Matthew's (St. Paul) - 169

St. Michael's (West St. Paul) - 92

Pioneer Press

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