Bishop Matthew H. Clark sat down this week with the Catholic Courier’s general manager/editor, Karen Franz, to discuss such topics as his commitment to Catholic education, why he decided it was essential to close 13 Monroe County Catholic schools, what factors contributed to the schools’ financial crisis, and what he would like to say to displaced students, parents and faculty members. What follows is a transcript of that interview, edited for length:
Can you speak in general about your commitment to Catholic education?
I have a strong commitment to keeping alive the possibility of Catholic-school education for people in our diocese who want that for their children. I think it’s a very wonderful way to form our young people in the faith, and at the same time give them a quality education. So, yes, my commitment to that is strong.
That commitment is always located in my commitment to the general well being of our diocese and to the other needs that we have, and to the proportion between the resources we put into Catholic education and that other range of needs. Because of the quality of our Catholic-school education, that makes it a very attractive avenue for our investment.
Catholic-school education has been very much a part of our culture since the diocese was formed and before. This diocese has always had a very rich tradition of Catholic-school education … (Rochester’s first bishop, Bernard) McQuaid wanted a Catholic school in every parish. Well, we’ve never had that, but there was a time when we had many more than we have now. Circumstances and life’s flow have demanded some adjustments, but I would like to keep that opportunity available, especially … for those of few means, for whom Catholic-school education can be a major break in life.
Other than escalating tuition rates, why do you think fewer Catholic families choose to put their children in Catholic schools today than in previous decades?
There are number of factors. … People have an option for high-quality public education in many of the districts throughout our 12-county diocese. I think people see as a viable alternative … that they will center the religious education of their children in the family and/or their parish communities, many of which have very fine youth-ministry and catechetical programs to support our young people. I think people make other choices, weigh different priorities about the kind of lifestyles they would like to enjoy, the choices they make about recreation, the amenities they’ll have. So the level of commitment they may have to Catholic-school education is operative there.
Catholic schools — in McQuaid’s point of view, at least — were meant to help our immigrant population adjust to life in the United States and, at the same time, to preserve their faith tradition in a civic environment that wasn’t always friendly to Catholics. That environmental issue has changed over the years. Catholics are pretty well integrated into American society right now, and whereas a parent might once have sent a child to Catholic school to preserve the faith and to protect them from the incivility of the culture, that doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore. … There was a time when Catholics need not apply, and now they’re CEOs all over the place in our society.
How did the Monroe County Catholic School system arrive at this crisis point, and could it have been avoided?
It got to this point because of shifting circumstances — a lot of the things we’ve talked about. Among the more significant factors are rising costs — a combination of the cost of education itself, the cost of health care and the consistent desire and effort to pay our teachers a more just salary — resulting in an increase in tuition. And then, inevitably, with the increase of tuition, you get a decline of enrollment. … Our enrollment decline over these past years has been dramatic and steady. And there’s a pretty strong correlation between that decrease and the increase in costs.
Could it have been avoided? I don’t know how. It’s not as though this is the first step we’ve ever taken to move with the times and to adjust. Ten to 12 years ago, we had a very significant restructuring of our schools. And I think most people will agree that restructuring helped us a lot in stabilizing the Catholic-school picture; it regularized and made predictable and, therefore, allowed planning… But we’ve simply come to another stage in this evolution where we have to make another significant adjustment if we’re going to be able to keep the option for Catholic-school education open…
When we established the Monroe County system, it was a time of great controversy, but it allowed us to do some very good things, including attracting the wonderful Wegman (donation) to stabilize the inner-city WIN Schools. Well, we’ve had to make some adjustments in that program now, but just as the adjustments 12 years ago resulted in some pretty fruitful benefits for us, so we hope that these adjustments will yield a very positive outcome, too.
This is probably, certainly, not the definitive step. There will be other adjustments to be made in the future, and I think anybody who’s in touch with this issue knows that. The best we can do is stay alert to the changing times and make the most positive adjustments we can to move with that flow.
The task force presented you with two options: a smaller tuition cut with fewer schools closed, and a larger tuition cut with two more schools closed. Why did you opt for the latter option?
Because it seemed to be the strong majority opinion within the task force that — in order for our efforts to be attractive, to make a difference with people’s lives — we would be much better served with the more substantial tuition cut. Further, that we would likely be postponing the inevitable closure of a couple of marginal schools for just a year or two and, the task force majority felt, if we could avoid that slow bleeding to death, it would be better to make the harder — yet more attractive — move to give people more incentive. … In summary, that’s the reasoning of those who favored the more radical cut in the number of schools.
Personally, I supported the decision we’ve come to. … My opinion was and still is that this is the better way to do it.
In light of the closing of five out of the six WIN Schools, could you speak about the diocese’s continuing commitment to providing Catholic education for urban and low-income families?
That’s really at the heart of my hope and my commitment for Catholic-school education — for those for whom it makes such a significant and important difference. I hope people will see this move as a reinforcement of our commitment to these young people.
You know, if you can fill up the schools that we’re keeping and spend the same amount of money, you’re clearly directing more money to the education of these kids and less money to keeping up the buildings in which they’re located.
I realize it’s a challenge … It’s not easy for people to pack up and move, spiritually or physically. But I’m told that our urban parents like that their children go to school on a bus and, while they may not particularly enjoy the fact that their children could be spending a little bit more time on the bus, I hope the quality of the education and the environment offered by our Catholic schools and the support they will receive in so many ways would be some compensation …
My fond hope is that we’ll have more kids participating from the inner city in this program than we’ve had before. I dearly hope that. It would be a tremendous blessing to them and to us, were they to be part of this effort. So I’m hoping that families, our principals in affected schools, and our teachers there will do all that they reasonably can to acquaint these young people and their parents with the opportunity available to them and encourage them in every way to continue to enjoy the wonderful gift of Catholic-school education for them. That would make everybody very happy.
What has been Peggy Wegman’s reaction to this announcement?
I can tell you from my observation and my conversations with her that Peggy remains a very strong friend and ally in trying to help our city students enjoy a Catholic-school education. As recently as this morning I spoke with her, and she … said something like, ‘We might have fewer schools, but I’m going to be in the schools we have, and we’re going to do the best we can.’ … She’s very supportive of those children … even though there’s some disappointment, obviously, that she’s losing some of these schools she loves so much.
What can you say to the roughly 200 faculty members who will be displaced by these closings?
To those faculty members, I can first of all express profound gratitude for their commitment to our kids and for the ways they have served them — so often with considerable personal sacrifice — over the years. I would express the hopes, next, that we can absorb at least some of them into our system; that for those who opt for retirement at this moment in their lives, we do all that we can to facilitate that passage from full-time employment in our schools to retirement; that we assist those whom we cannot absorb in our system in any way we can to secure employment in other systems. We’re working on an extension of their health-care benefits through October of 2008. … We will try to absorb them not only into the school system, but also in the diocese. I’m sure some would qualify for a variety of positions in our parish communities or other agencies, including perhaps our diocesan staff.
What would you like to say to the Catholic community in general, and to the parents and faculty of the affected schools?
I’d hope that they would appreciate a few things. One, that we really do – absent any initiative or action – face some financial issues we simply can’t handle. That this is not sort of a whimsical, unfounded change in the way we’re doing business; it’s simply necessitated by a rapidly deepening threat of indebtedness that is not going to serve anybody. That the steps we’ve tried to take to make the option more attractive to people by substantially reducing its cost, while at the same time allowing us to direct the funds we do put into the schools to be used more directly for educational purposes, including what we hope will be a substantial advancement in the availability of new technology in our educational processes. So I hope people would see, first of all, the need to do this, that they would be attracted by the more economical price tag and by the quality of education that we’re offering to them…
The avenue we need to pursue — and we will — is to deepen our development efforts in support of Catholic-school education. I simply don’t think in fairness or justice that we can tap our parish communities further to support this. We have to develop a new funding source. I don’t think it’s going to be government. I wish it could be, but it certainly doesn’t look that way.
So I hope we can interest benefactors capable of helping in the effort, because absent that kind of contribution, we’re going to be looking at another substantial adjustment in the years ahead; I don’t know exactly when, but it’s just inevitable.
To all folks who are deeply interested in Catholic-school education, I simply say if you can help us in this developmental effort, we’d be pleased to have your guidance, your suggestions, your assistance. We will make strong efforts and we hope that they’ll be successful. But there’s no absolute lock on that; all we can do is try.