Ronnie Polaneczky: North Catholic: Why CAN'T it stay open?
YOU COULDN'T find a more devout booster of Catholic education than Jason Marquess.
He heads the well-heeled board of the Friends of Northeast Catholic High School - FONECHS. He credits the Frankford school with helping him mature from a grief-stricken teen into a focused young man, following the death of his father.
"My years at North formed the foundation of everything I've become," says Marquess, a lawyer and 1967 North grad whose mother struggled to raise her four sons after becoming widowed. "I can't imagine how life would've turned out if I hadn't gotten a Catholic education."
So, it's stunning that Marquess now vows never to give another nickel to the Philadelphia Archdiocese. His reason: the archdiocese's refusal to keep North open for one more year so that North supporters can convert it to a Cristo Rey high school.
"Many young men in that area will not get a Catholic education, once that building closes," says Marquess. "They won't go to other archdiocesan schools. They will leave Catholic schools altogether. I'm devastated. And if the bishop thinks we'll funnel our money into his other schools, he's dead-wrong."
So, it's common knowledge that the Archdiocese plans to shutter Cardinal Dougherty and North Catholic high schools in June. Citing falling enrollment, Bishop Joseph McFadden has said that the Archdiocese can't support the upkeep of huge facilities where thousands of students were once educated.
What's not common knowledge is that, for at least five years, FONECHS, along with North's alumni association and private donors, have underwritten the school's debt, according to Marquess.
"The deficit has gotten larger every year," he says, "and we knew we couldn't fund it forever. But we never, ever stiffed the Archdiocese on the bill. We've donated millions of dollars, easily. North has not been a drain on the Archdiocese."
That's why, he says, members of FONECHS and the alumni association were floored that McFadden announced North's closure without even soliciting their input. In 2006, McFadden had promised to keep the school open for at least five years, to give a new, FONECHS-funded in-house technology academy time to start bringing revenue into the school.
Instead, three years later, the Archdiocese said it was pulling the plug.
Things looked hopeful in November, when Marquess and seven other North alums launched a feasibility study to see if North might join the Cristo Rey network of independent Catholic schools.
Founded by the Jesuits, the national network uses an ingenious work-study model to fund school operations in mostly low-income neighborhoods. Conversion to a Cristo Rey model usually takes 18 to 24 months, but Marquess and Co. hoped to have things in place by September, so that North's doors wouldn't close.
This week, they realized they'd run out of time for a September 2010 opening. But chances were excellent for a 2011 launch if the Archdiocese would keep North open just one more year - a year during which the alums would again cover the deficit.
They need a year's momentum to keep families and faculty in place, Marquess explains. To create a board. Hire an administration. Build on the commitments from corporate sponsors. Keep the place occupied and secure instead of empty and vulnerable to vandalism. Ensure the seamless operation of the IT academy, which is thriving.
"We even offered to buy the building, right now," for between $2.5 million and $3 million, says Marquess.
The Archdiocese's response?
"They told us no," says Marquess.
McFadden was unavailable for comment, but spokeswoman Donna Farrell says the Archdiocese is eager "to move on" from this "very tough" situation.
"We're creating schedules and rosters for next year, and we're focusing on registrations" of North and Dougherty students at other archdiocesan high schools, she said. "We're focused on getting them into a stable environment in a new school."
Maybe I'm not getting something, but wouldn't students enjoy the most stability by staying in their present school?
Farrell says the Archdiocese hopes that North alums will offer tuition support to students transferring to other archdiocesan schools.
"It will never happen," says Marquess. "Besides, it's against our charter."
Funds that have supported North's students and operations can easily be channeled back into the alumni association's founding mission, he says: To pay for college scholarships for children of North alums.
"The Archdiocese has abandoned inner-city Catholic education," says Marquess, sounding absolutely heartbroken. "We're not going to support them in that decision."
The Archdiocese still has time to change its mind, to honor the hard work of good men who honor Catholic education so much, they dig deep into their pockets every year to make sure that city boys get what they once got.
C'mon, Bishop McFadden. It's only one year. What would Jesus do?