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8 Catholic high schools to become independent

Boston Archdiocese plans to grant autonomy

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 10/16/2003

The Archdiocese of Boston announced yesterday that it will spin off its eight regional high schools into financially independent Catholic schools by early next year, bestowing both greater freedom and heavier fiscal burdens on the campuses.

Each of the schools will soon have its own board of trustees with the power to run the campuses as they see fit, including raising money and setting teacher salaries. Currently, the eight schools report to a single board of trustees that approves their budgets and sets policy.

The archdiocese, however, will continue to oversee religious curriculum and will approve each school's board members. The schools will no longer receive financial subsidies from the archdiocese and will have to pay expenses that the church now covers.

The move is part of a push to have Catholic schools rely less on the financially struggling archdiocese, which is coping with several years of slow fund-raising and the tentative $85 million settlement in the clergy sex abuse scandal. However, planning for the change began more than two years ago after officials realized red tape was hampering some schools.

"It became more and more apparent that the needs were just too diverse," said Sister Kathleen Carr, the archdiocesan superintendent of schools. "The principals were looking to be able to go ahead and add on additions to some buildings. They wanted to do capital campaigns and raise money, and when you're under a framework of eight schools and all of them have to be in lockstep with each other, it really was limiting their ability to thrive."

She declined to say how much each of the eight schools receives in subsidies from the archdiocese. The funds can range from a one-time allocation to regular grants. Like other Catholic schools, the eight high schools will continue to do their own fund-raising or tap the Catholic Schools Foundation, the organization that annually distributes millions in tuition assistance to needy students, Carr said.

The eight schools are Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody, Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, Cathedral High School in Boston, Marian High School in Framingham, Matignon High School in Cambridge, North Cambridge Catholic High, and Pope John XXIII High in Everett. They must make the transition by Aug. 31, 2004.

Yesterday's announcement prompted some observers to raise questions of equity, a constant worry among the 169 schools in the Boston Archdiocese, where suburban schools have thrived while many urban ones have closed their doors because of dwindling enrollment and spiraling costs. Among the eight high schools, prominent ones with more success at fund-raising, such as Archbishop Williams or Bishop Fenwick, will be able to wean themselves from the archdiocese more easily than schools that serve less affluent students such as Cathedral High School in Boston, observers said.

This year, five Catholic schools in Boston closed down, unable to sustain themselves financially.

"Those schools that serve affluent people will more likely be able to raise funds, raise tuitions, to meet costs. They're just more wealthy institutions," said the Rev. Joseph M. O'Keefe, interim dean of Boston College's Lynch School of Education and an authority on Catholic schools. "If there is a call to action, it's for Catholics in the community to support those schools like Cathedral that serve low-income kids."

Principals notified parents and teachers of the plan on Tuesday and yesterday, and reaction was mixed. While some parents applaud the greater independence from the archdiocese, teachers, especially veteran educators, are worried.

Instead of one contract, the Boston Archdiocesan Teachers Association might have to negotiate eight, said president Lewis Pedi.

"We really want to work with the archdiocese to make this a smooth transition, but we would like a role during the transition and after," said Pedi, a teacher at North Cambridge Catholic High School.

Principals insist they need the greater authority. About four years ago, for example, Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton wanted to launch a fund-raising campaign for tuition assistance. But officials on the Archdiocesan Central High Schools' board, which oversees the eight schools, placed a moratorium on schools' capital campaigns because an archdiocesan fund-raiser was beginning at the same time.

"Although we were ready and anxious to begin, we had to put everything on hold," recalled Sister Thomasine Knowlton, the principal of Cardinal Spellman. "This time, as the board perceives our needs, we will have the freedom to do the kinds of things that we want to do to ensure the future stability of the school."

But some parents worry that their child's school may raise tuition to make up deficits. Tuition averages $6,500 for secondary schools.

Outside Cathedral High School in Boston's South End yesterday, parent Mona Silva of Hyde Park said she hopes the new structure will not force the school to shift money away from financial aid. Silva's son is in ninth grade at Cathedral High School and had to leave Most Precious Blood School in Hyde Park when it closed in June 2002.

"We all know why the church needs to save money, but the schools and children are affected by this," Silva said. "The archdiocese doesn't have the children in mind at all. They are doing what they have to at the expense of children."

Other parents welcome the change.

"I think they could run very well on their own," said Wanda Salvatore, chairwoman of the Parent Support Board at Archbishop Williams High School. "The people who are making the decisions at the school level know what's best for that school. They're there every day."

Globe correspondent Casey Farrar contributed to this report.

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