CN March 14, 2013

We have a new pope. But big changes may be coming to the Chicago Archdiocese, too, since Cardinal George has submitted his resignation and Pope Francis has the option to replace him. And any New Cardinal will face daunting challenges.

“(Church) Attendance is going down, because the number of practicing Catholics is going down significantly,” explains Art Golab, who just authored a Sun-Times analysis of the financial and economic issues facing the area’s Catholics. “A lot of people are leaving the church.  They’re not giving as much money at the collection plate. Collections have been down for the last five years…so they’re facing a number of problems, but they essentially stem from fewer people in the pews and less money coming in.”

In addition, more than half of all Catholic schools have closed since 1985. Attendance is going down, Golab reports, because the number of practicing Catholics is going down significantly. In fact, he says, while that number is going down, many who do self-report as Catholics only attend “weddings, funerals and baptisms.”  So taken together, both groups are contributing to falling weekly church attendance and school enrollments.

“They’ve got a billion dollar budget, and they’ve been running thirty to forty-million dollar deficits for the past five years,” he says.  “When they have these deficits they dip into the endowment. And the endowment hasn’t been doing that well investment-wise.”

But the problems aren’t only financial. “There are many parishes that have one pastor serving more than one parish,” he explains. “So they’re downsizing, and they’re trying to do it as economically and efficiently as they can. And now they’re saying that because of this deficit, it’s going to get worse.”

On another subject, the number of CPS schools about to be closed could be far higher than anybody imagined – possibly 70 or 80 schools. And those school swill be overwhelmingly in the black community, Golab reports.

As children from the closed schools are pushed into neighboring schools, there’s great concern that class sizes will begin to rise significantly. In fact, spokesperson Becky Carroll hinted this week that class size might rise to 40.

“My colleagues, who are education reporters, have sat in on classrooms with national award-winning teachers who have 35 kids in their classroom,” Art Golab says. “And it’s mayhem. It takes 20 minutes to take attendance. It takes 20 minutes to go to the bathroom. By the time you’re done getting all that stuff out of the way, your teaching time is cut in half. It multiplies the difficulty of being a teacher. And I don’t see how they’re gonna get away with it.”

“If the whole purpose is connecting with students, and you’ve got 40 kids – the variable here is the kids,” adds Marcus Gilmer, Sun-Times Digital Editor. “You’re not dealing with 40 well-mannered school children who are sitting there, hands folded, apple on the desk, and listening to everything you say. This is such a disconnect from reality. We’re always lamenting the kids who slip through the cracks. Well, that’s happening with 25, 30 kids. 40 kids is ridiculous. You’re not even gonna remember every kid’s name in every class.”

And this brings up a related issue, which Eric Zorn mulled over last Friday. Why was Mayor Emanuel so insistent on lengthening the school day as a way of increasing the quality of the education experience, but seems blasé about increasing class sizes dramatically?

“The first proposition of increasing the class day was a questionable one to begin with,” asserts Golab.  “I think it suited the Mayor and the administration because it was a way that they could say that they were doing something. But part of that whole deal was that they were going to bring in more teachers to do that. And that’s been difficult. They said we’re going to bring in music, we’re going to bring in art teachers. We’re still trying to find out exactly what they’ve done. But I think they’ve had trouble filling that longer school day.”

Mayor Emanuel got some more tough news this week with the overwhelming rejection of the Police Sergeants’ proposed contract, which envisioned later retirement and greater costs to retirees.  Golab says that, while it’s true that there’s strong public sentiment against a contract that allows sergeants to retire at age 50 with 75% of their salaries, he thinks the police and fire unions will be able to make a strong counter-argument.

“They’re gonna say, we’re out on the streets basically wearing out our bodies. Chasing people through alleys. Getting shot at. Getting hurt. You know, retirement at age fifty is not a bad idea. You want younger cops out on the street anyway. And this, by the way, is part of the deal. This is a pact between the police and the City – that we’ll take care of you, and you’ll take care of us.”

We also took some time to kick around the new CTA Ventra card, and our official Chicago Newsroom poll found that 100% of the journalists on our panel – both of them – favor killing off Taste of Chicago.

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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