Philly archdiocese turns Catholic high school management over to foundation

Closing schools, selling properties — the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s economic woes have been well documented. Now, in a nationwide first, archdiocese leaders hope to rejuvenate the city’s Catholic education system by handing the keys over to a group with a better business pedigree.

When St. Hubert’s student Danielle Talbot was told in January that her high school was closing, she couldn’t help herself.

“I cried … a lot,” she said.

When the archdiocese reversed its decision the next month, she was overjoyed, but she also knew the schools were still in financial trouble. So, like many of her fellow students, she hoped to boost enrollment by pitching the benefits of a Catholic education to others.

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“This is possibly the greatest school on the planet, and there’s so many reasons why we love it — from the students to the teachers to all the activities,” the St. Hubert’s “Bambie Ambassador” would tell potential recruits.

Tuesday, students such as Danielle found out that — from now on — they’ll be getting some big help in making this pitch.

In a nationwide first, the Philadelphia archdiocese has handed over management of its 17 high schools and four special education schools to the independent Faith in the Future Foundation. The foundation will assume the archdiocese’s deficits while taking charge of fundraising and marketing.

“We are businesspeople and we believe we can bring a management philosophy to these schools that respects what is historically their strength, but brings a higher level of competence to the actual management of the schools,” said foundation chairman and interim CEO Ed Hanway, the former head of health-care giant Cigna.

Two-pronged approach

Essentially, the foundation plans to cut deficits and boost enrollment in two ways.

First, it aims to raise enough money to lower the $6,000 a year secondary school tuition.

Secondly, it hopes to capitalize on the state’s new Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit. A law Gov. Tom Corbett signed in June allows businesses to divert up to $50 million in taxes owed to the state directly to private scholarship organizations. These scholarship organizations then dole out the redirected tax dollars to students at the state’s bottom-performing public schools.

Hanway offered the Chester Upland School District as an example. With business owners’ cooperation, he said some students in Chester would be eligible to attend private schools at the state’s expense.

One-third of the foundation’s board will be appointed by Archbishop Charles Chaput. Asked how much influence he will have on this newly created unit, Chaput was frank.

“A whole lot,” he replied, calling the new arrangement a mutual partnership. Chaput also said that the archdiocese’s lack of personnel has hindered its own fundraising and enrollment-boosting efforts to this point.

“If we had a foundation like this earlier,” he said, “I think it would have been better.”

The archdiocese will continue to develop curriculum and negotiate with the teachers union.

Its deficit is half of what it was in January and enrollment numbers for the coming school year are exceeding expectations.

The foundation, which will not be paid by the Archdiocese, plans to raise $100 million within five years. As of July 1, donors had committed $15 million.

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