Our Opinion: Diocese has failed its parochial schools

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With admirable thoroughness and frankness, a study group has put forward a report detailing the deep-rooted problems facing Catholic schools within the Springfield Diocese, including Berkshire County, and offering proposals on how they can be addressed. The questions are whether there are the money and the will to address them.

The report, made by the Pathways to Faith Commission, revealed the diocesan school system to be underfunded, poorly coordinated and lacking in a defining mission (Eagle, May 23). The commission, which was co-chaired by the Rev. Brian McGrath, pastor of St. Mary Mother of the Church Parish in Lee, was created a year by Bishop Mitchell Rozanski. That act alone is to his considerable credit, as the severe problems facing the Springfield Diocese and its schools were allowed to fester under his predecessor, who was rarely heard from in the Berkshires unless it was to announce the closing of a church or the devastating closing of St. Joseph's High School in Pittsfield.

The report is withering in its assessment of financial practices within the diocesan school system, observing that underfunding and an inequitable distribution of precious funds has led to schools running deficits, unable to invest in new technology or even maintain buildings properly. A lack of financial controls and information made it difficult to get to the bottom of the problem, according to the commission, explaining that "negative financial balances have been reported for years without clear explanation of how these deficits have been covered."

The commission advocated creation of the positions of assistant superintendent, financial manager and director of development to address the problems of poor management and oversight in the schools. We would go further to advocate a regional approach along the lines of that being adopted by financially challenged public school systems within Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts. There cannot be parochialism within the 14 parochial schools in the diocese.

Along with St. Mary's in Lee, Berkshire County has two other Catholic elementary schools, St. Agnes Academy in Dalton and St. Stanislaus Kostka School in Adams. We would encourage the bishop to consider regionalizing these three schools in the western edge of the district, perhaps under a newly created position of assistant superintendent. It is encouraging that the enrollments ofthese three schools remain stable, but the closing of St. Joseph's High School will have a trickle down impact that has not been fully felt. For the first time, those three feeder schools have no high school to feed into, and parents may be reluctant to send their children to a parochial school knowing that they will eventually go to a public high school in the Berkshires.

The commission found that the diocese has failed to reach out to Latino families, who make up 24 percent of the population in the district's towns but only account for only 9 percent of enrollment in district parochial schools. This failure is indefensible given that the Latino population is actually increasing in a region that is losing population in general, and is to a large extent Catholic.

Even with better financial management, the money problems afflicting the schools and the churches within the district will be difficult to solve. Demographics have certainly hurt the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, but so have the long clergy abuse scandal, which has roots in Massachusetts, including the Springfield Diocese, and the embrace of radical right-wing politics by dioceses in the state.

Catholic schools have long been a key component of the educational scene in Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts. For that to continue, the Catholic Church, the Springfield Diocese and the schools within that diocese will have to embrace significant reform measures. The commission has laid out a path to reform, but if its reports collects dust on a shelf, the serious problems within the schools will only worsen, threatening their existence.

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