Independent board takes on finances for 14 Philadelphia Catholic schools

 Archbishop Charles Chaput talks with St. Gabriel Elementary School students (from left) Amirah Drew, Caitlin Dwyer, and Joseph McCann after announcing that their school and 13 others will be independently run. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

Archbishop Charles Chaput talks with St. Gabriel Elementary School students (from left) Amirah Drew, Caitlin Dwyer, and Joseph McCann after announcing that their school and 13 others will be independently run. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

An independent board of local business leaders is taking over finances for 14 Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to help fill the funding and enrollment gaps that cash-strapped parishes are unable to fill on their own.

The new “mission schools” make their debut after a string of tough financial years for the archdiocese as a whole – and especially for its schools.

The archdiocese closed 33 elementary schools from 2011 to 2013 amid falling enrollment and rising tuition costs.

But at a news conference in St. Gabriel School Monday, board chairman Brian McElwee noted a light at the end of the tunnel: enrollment is up 7 percent this year, the first time it has risen since 2006.

That’s good news for McElwee, who has been courting individual and corporate scholarship funds in an effort to keep every classroom seat filled.  Running the schools full, he explains, just makes good business sense.

“Your costs don’t change, so you need to spread them over as many students as possible,” he said.

The board hopes to raise enrollment by nearly a third over the next three years.  The goal is to bankroll some of those new students, as well as returning students in need of financial aid, by adding $40 million in scholarships in the next four years.

Also appearing at the news conference, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said the board is providing a priceless gift to underserved parts of the archdiocese.

“They enable us to continue this mission, which is the mission to educate poor children, in a way that we couldn’t do on our own because of our own financial struggles as an archdiocese these days,” he said.

Earlier this month, the archdiocese’s first independently audited financial report found that it was $39 million in the hole over the last fiscal year.

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