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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?

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:
http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ronnieblog.

Posted 03:54 AM, 03/19/2010
Clearly fiscal responsibility was not on the North curriculum in the 60's.
Posted 04:46 AM, 03/19/2010
Given tuition, I find it amazing that more inner-city Catholic schools aren't proactively exploring the Christo Rey model because it's only a matter of time before more students are priced out of the marked (after, say, a 12-13% property tax hike.) It's also amazing that the archdiocese wouldn't agree to manage Norf for an additional year, given the virtual indemnity against any losses by the alums.
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Posted 06:09 AM, 03/19/2010
i was there with them and mcfadden what a hard head he is so determined to shut us down and all city high schools i'm sorry he wants 4 one in each region i'm glad jason spoke up our alumni covered the deficit every year how's that enrollment going at your 65 million dollar baby i see your short there can't wait to see rigali in fishtown on sunday along with a couple hundred of my friends of fishtown and port richmond
Posted 06:16 AM, 03/19/2010
we offered to buy the property and handle all deficits this year so we would'nt lose all the present north kids but macfadden says no i'm glad most kids are going to non catholic schools ie franklin town charter and other charter it's time for all city catholic schools to take a stand we pay the same tution as the people they want to cater to i'm glad your hertige fund is below where you want it stop giving extra to them they don't care about city catholics .
Posted 06:24 AM, 03/19/2010
state engineer
that a real shame the Catholic loves little boys.
Posted 06:25 AM, 03/19/2010
if our lead donor doe'snt give to them either that's a huge hit knowing the love he has for north i'm sure he feels the same as jason also donna farrel always saying something why won't she comment when in jan we were turned away from meeting someone not 100% postive but out of 551 kids judge got 80 to 100 roman same and goretti 20 ryan maybe 20 so they lost out on 200 kids parents putting money in there pockets
Posted 06:35 AM, 03/19/2010
mike l
So they save the school for a year, then what? It closes again next year? Can they get teachers to work for free? Hellp, people, wake up. It's not the 50s and 60s any more where you had the Irish and Itrakian families with six or more kids, where the tuition cost $200 and most of the faculty were priests and nuns, who got little or nothing as salary. How many of these North alumni still live in their old bneighborhoods? How many have fled to the 'burbs and let the lower classes move in. Those new people cannot afford $2500 in tuition and most are no longer Catholics, but other denominations. Time to face reality, as my catholic school teachers taught me.
Posted 06:58 AM, 03/19/2010
hello north still has more students than west catholic, neuman goretti, carroll, why were'nt they shut down they could have merged us and doc or north and little flower just like every other school did
Posted 08:18 AM, 03/19/2010
mike I you are totally on the mark! North was once THE LARGEST ALL MALE SECONDARY SCHOOL IN THE WORLD. I want to ask every critic of the Archdiocese if you ignore Church teaching on contraception - thwarting God's plan of creating faithful, loving, and eternal souls through large Catholic families. North cannot survive because the people have placed mammon as their god - "another car", "vacation", "flat-screen", etc. My parents sacrificed and skipped many of the niceties to raise a bunch of kids and pay tuition. The North alum need to remain in the neighborhood, support the local parishes, and fill the schools with children. Look in the mirror man!
Posted 08:46 AM, 03/19/2010
bil. atk.
mike, did you even read the article? The year they are asking for is a bridge to get the Cristo Rey model up and running, with the alumni financing any shortfalls. Please, try not to be so stupid, just once. As for the fate of North, while my only association with the school was being on the wrong end of more athletic contests against them than I care to remember, I have to agree with Mr. Marquess. Not one more nickel goes to these frauds. My cash can go to pay out legal settlements for priests who molest kids, but they can't work with an inner city school just a bit to provide some sort of oasis in the heart of that area for young men? Talk about your upside down priorities. Bishop McFadden, you should probably make an extended confession appointement to get your 9th commandment violations off your puffed chest. And Cardinal Rigali, enjoy your stay. You're dead to a lot of us at this point.
Posted 09:05 AM, 03/19/2010
First the schools go, then the parishes, then the faith. Philadelphia had been the jewel in Catholic education system in the US. Those days are over. Strong stable families with financial assets will continue to attend Catholic schools. Not sure that is the right message.
Posted 09:07 AM, 03/19/2010
Typical Catholic Church. The inner city is where they're needed the most, but instead of staying and helping - they're leaving. They want you to believe they are all loving and all caring, but in reality they're all business.
Posted 09:19 AM, 03/19/2010
Mike I..what you say is very true..I personally know alot of the bandwagon folks for NC who cry but also left for the "burbs". The times have changed for that neighborhood as I too once lived there and am LF alumni. But having said that...I agree with the folks who say what they say about the Archdioceses..they are pay for a prayer people who are frauds. Catholicism is now a business just like our country. I too will not support them with another dime..the Archdioceses has a deep surplus of funds..we all know it..they make mucho $$ from the churches in the "burbs"..so why cant they get these parishes as loving brethern to donate some of their $$ to help out for just one more yr???? Charity begins at home but I dont see much charity being done from the Archdioceses homes!!!
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