It was, no doubt, a painful day for teachers, parents and students in Catholic education as the diocese announced the closure of 10 schools in Erie County, affecting 1,154 students and 195 teachers and staff.
The decision will have many radiating consequences, yet it seems undeniable that the decision had to be made in order to forestall even worse consequences. Indeed, the question is whether the diocese went far enough to prevent yet another round of closures in years ahead.
Start from the beginning. Some facts are undeniable: Western New York has lost population and become older in recent decades. It’s a change that has affected multiple industries, health care prominently among them. Both the Catholic Health System and Kaleida Health have closed or repurposed whole hospitals to remain healthy in the face of demographic change. Education has not escaped the same economic forces.
Across Erie County, Catholic school enrollment in kindergarten through eighth grade has fallen by 5,711 students, or 41 percent, since the 2003-04 school year. Overall, the 42 Catholic schools in the county operate at just 68 percent of capacity.
The choices for the Catholic schools, then, were to act in response to the forces of the economic climate or wait until the economic forces acted on them, with results that would, no doubt, have been more calamitous. That doesn’t make for happy relations with supporters – Catholic Health learned that hard lesson when it closed Our Lady of Victory Hospital in Lackawanna 15 years ago – but the arithmetic of supply and demand is an indifferent master. It’s act now or suffer later.
In some ways, the closure of 10 schools is less punishing than might have been expected under the circumstances. And, in fact, leaders of the system acknowledge that, armed with reams of demographic data, they chose to act conservatively, closing fewer schools than some advisers thought to be necessary. Bishop Richard J. Malone made the final determinations.
That raises the uncomfortable possibility that the diocese’s unhappy work is not yet complete. It is possible that more closings will come in the future, though by acting cautiously, it also allows room for intervening factors that could change the calculation.
Among those choices was to close none of the system’s Buffalo schools. At a minimum, that holds open the possibility that the Buffalo School District will stop dragging its feet and respond to the Catholic schools’ offer to take in some of the city students who are demanding transfers out of underperforming schools. The city district has nowhere to put most of those students, so troubled are its schools, yet it is thus far snubbing an offer that could benefit both school systems.
It also seems that the Catholic schools missed a bet by not having in place specific offers or recommendations for parents whose children will be affected by the closings. If the goal is to retain as many of them as possible, it would have been helpful – and perhaps just as important, reassuring – for parents to have had an immediate idea of how they can keep their children in Catholic education. For example, presenting ways to keep groups of friends together would have eliminated some of that fear and reduced the urge to move children to public schools.
Still, the fact is that the diocese didn’t flinch from at least the minimum it needed to achieve, and that was sufficiently painful. It acted in the face of incontrovertible trends in the quest to preserve Catholic education for the long term.
There are public school districts in Western New York that are suffering from the same trends. They could take a lesson here.