Milwaukee Diocese Considers Nonsectarian System

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Roman Catholic religious and education leaders in Milwaukee are considering a plan to turn four financially strapped Catholic elementary schools in the city into a nonsectarian religious system that could tap into financial support from businesses and foundations.

The plan is being advanced by the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Education Foundation, an entity tied to the city's Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland has expressed support for the proposal, which is still in the early stages.

Several of those involved said the plan appears to offer a unique ap4proach to maintaining a religious-school presence in inner-city neighborhoods that are no longer heavily Roman Catholic.

"I think it is something that could well become a model for the country," said the Rev. Robert Schneider, administrator of Milwaukee's four-school Central City Catholic School System.

Among the provisions of the plan are these:

The archdiocese and the 10 Roman Catholic parishes in the city that operate the four-school system would give control of the schools to a nonprofit corporation. The new sys8tem would contract with the archdiocesan superintendent of schools for administrative services.

Enrollment in the four schools could be expanded from the current total of about 900 to more thanel10l1,500, with tuition based on families' ability to pay.

The schools, while becoming nonsectarian, would still stress religious teaching. But not all pupils would get Catholic teaching; non-Catholic students would attend religion classes stressing other faiths.

A proposed Committee on Urban Education would raise funds for the schools from foundations and other benefactors; the planners estimate that a $15-million endowment will be needed to finance the plan.

"We feel the presence of the church in our central-city schools is vital, but the big problem we are facing is financial," said Father Scheider. "We were discussing how we can save what we have and still continue what we are about, and the ecumenical model came up."

The schools involved in the plan are St. Leo's, St. Rose, Holy Angels, and St. Thomas Aquinas, all of which have faced declining enrollments and increasing financial difficulties in recent years. The schools of 10 city parishes were consolidated four years ago at the four remaining school sites.

The archdiocese has provided the school system with a $315,000 subsidy each of the past four years, plus an additional $160,000 last year. At least 70 percent of the students in the four schools are non-Catholic, officials said.

"The Catholic presence would not only be maintained under this, but it would be strengthened," said Father Schneider. "We have a great number of unchurched people in the inner city. Because of our ongoing presence, we feel many parents of the unchurched would choose to have the Catholic formation for their children."

Ministers or qualified teachers of other faiths would be brought in to provide religious instruction to non-Catholics, officials said.

Brother Robert Kealey of the National Catholic Educational Association said the Milwaukee proposal is unusual. "I don't know of anything specifically along that line anywhere else," he said.

He stressed, however, that many Catholic schools with large percentages of non-Catholics either invite ministers of other faiths to give lessons or set up classes geared toward those children's faiths.

"What we're talking about there is just the religious-studies classes," Brother Kealey said. "But the distinguishing characteristic of Catholic schools is that all day long, in all classes, teachers are integrating Christian values into what's being studied."

He also noted that a number of archdioceses, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, have established scholarship funds to aid those who cannot afford Catholic-school tuition.

Supporters of the Milwaukee plan said the fall of 1990 would be the earliest it might be put into effect.

"This is an idea in evolution," said T. Michael Bolger, a lawyer and chairman of the Milwaukee Archdiocesan Education Foundation.

But the Committee on Urban Education is expected to be set up by sometime in April and to make a preliminary report on the plan by June, said Dan McKinley, executive director of the education foundation.

When the proposal was disclosed this month in a Milwaukee newspaper, several planners expressed concern that the premature public debate about it could erode support.

Underscoring the possible tension over the plan has been the Milwaukee Public Schools' concern about a local Roman Catholic high school that advertised for new students and Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's support for a voucher plan to give parents a choice of public or private schools.

The public schools have opposed the Governor's voucher idea, but organizers of the nonsectarian school plan said their proposal was not linked to the Governor's proposal.

David Begel, a spokesman for the Milwaukee Public Schools, said officials are taking a "wait-and-see" attitude toward the nonsectarian plan.

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