NYTs enters Baltimore schools war

Most great stories feature a compelling good guy and a nasty bad guy, the kind of villain that likes to tear down good people and places. It also helps if the story includes some giant, transcendent symbol that is in danger of being destroyed. Well, the New York Times has jumped into the ongoing battle here in Baltimore between the Catholic archdiocese and the locals who want to make another attempt to save one of the city's most famous field of dreams (and memories). Yes, this story has a New York angle, and it's a baseball angle, too.

The headline: "A Fight to Save the House That Built Ruth."

BALTIMORE -- The hardscrabble field where George Herman Ruth Jr. learned baseball from a Xaverian brother is now a lovingly landscaped diamond. The little trees that he saw when he looked uphill from the field have grown into tall, graceful oaks. And the concrete fine arts building where he was taught shirt making in tailoring classes is intact but renovated.

Ruth would recognize what became of St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, although the stone wall that gave it the look of a grim fortress no longer surrounds it and home plate is just about where center field once was. But this essential part of Ruth's history -- a place where the slogan the House That Built Ruth adorns the back of the baseball team's jerseys -- could soon be demolished in much the same way as the old Yankee Stadium, now a crumbled wreck in the Bronx.

The school that was once St. Mary's doesn't exist anymore, but the site has, for nearly half a century, been home to a legendary institution in Baltimore athletics -- Cardinal Gibbons School.

Now, there is a bad guy who wants to tear that down. Why?

Last month, the Archdiocese of Baltimore said that Gibbons and 12 other schools would close in June because of falling enrollment, rising costs and financial problems exacerbated by the recession. Nationally, 1,603 parochial schools have closed or consolidated since 2000, leaving 7,094, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Justin Fratantuono, a junior on the baseball team, said that after learning on March 3 about the archdiocese's decision to close the school, he cried. "We marched to the archdiocese building to protest in a very respectful way," he said, "but the archdiocese ignored us."

It's worse than that, according to the school's leaders.

Board members say the school balanced its budget as the archdiocese requested. ... The board is hoping to raise the millions of dollars necessary to buy the property and turn it into a Catholic school that would be independent of the archdiocese. After initial confidence that the archdiocese was open to such a plan, that door slammed shut. Instead, board members fear that the valuable land, which is across the street from a sprawling hospital complex and about a half-mile from Interstate 95, will be sold to a developer.

"They've stacked the deck against us," said Wayne McDowell, a board member who graduated in 1967 and is considering wearing a sign on the back of his jacket that says, "Save Cardinal Gibbons, Fire the Archbishop," and starting a radio ad campaign to force O'Brien to negotiate. "My faith is being tested. ... I can't believe this is my archdiocese doing this."

At this point in the story the bad guy chooses to sends in his proxy, providing a mere PR face as the only balancing voice in this Times report:

... (A) spokesman, Sean Caine, said that Gibbons was no longer viable as a Catholic school. He said that enrollment was down to less than one-third of its capacity, or 297 students, during its first school year since the diocese removed the sixth and seventh grades, that it had nearly $4 million in deferred maintenance, that it had fallen behind on pension payments, and that it had been hurt by parents unable to keep up with tuition bills.

"Academically, we've just run out of time," Caine said.

The story's emphasis on the value of the land is interesting and totally valid. It is possible that, in economic hard times made worse by scandal, the church is trying to cut operating costs and turn some struggling schools into assets that can be used elsewhere -- such as schools with large student bodies.

The rest of the story returns to its focus on the Ruth angle. No, the Times does not suggest that the archbishop faces a new "curse of the Bambino" in the present tense or on judgement day.

So once again, we face a familiar question: Where did the Catholic students go? Many Catholics will also want to ask a related question: Where did the priests, brothers and nuns go who commitment (and virtually non-existant salaries) once made these schools so effective?

The Times has no interest in these questions, which are rooted in religion, not real estate.

I have more questions where those came from. Did inner-city Catholic students actually move to the suburbs or is that factor overrated? How healthy are the parishes that feed Gibbons and other schools that are closing? What percentage of the students in the closing schools are Catholic?

More questions: How many traditional Catholics have turned to home-schooling? How many "vocations" to religious orders and the priesthood have come from these declining schools in recent decades? Are some schools thriving while others decline? What are the trends on both sides of that equation? Is there any way to know if the school would be closing if it was full, especially if it was full of Catholic students?

Sorry to digress. My questions have nothing to do with the the story that the Times team is telling. My bad.

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