Teachers expelled in unavoidable school merger 

As a general rule, it’s not a good sign when your new employer won’t tell you if you’ll keep your job and then you see a posting for it on Craigslist.

And the odds aren’t in your favor when your business is in decline and a group flush with money is in private meetings with higher-ups and soon after seen measuring the office space.

In some ways this is a typical merger, in which one company holds all the leverage. Except in this case, the companies happen to be schools — one full of history and culture and the other rich and desperate to cash in on a new home.

That is the story line in the latest plot to emerge in San Francisco’s shifting parochial school environment, which is seeing several traditional grammar schools close due to declining enrollment and a new one emerge in their wake.

Proponents of the latest outcome, which will see the end of Mission Dolores School with roots dating back to 1852, are calling the new independent school that will replace it an opportunistic transition.

The faculty and staff at the closing school — most of whom have lost their jobs — are calling it a takeover.

“There is some anger and a sense of helplessness,” said Max Millard, one of the teachers who is being replaced. “From the beginning, we were kept in the dark.”

Still, the end result may have been unavoidable. Mission Dolores, along with several other Catholic grammar schools, has been suffering from declining enrollment. Corpus Christi will close this year and St. Elizabeth’s already has. And the new school, which will be called Mission Dolores Academy, is the offshoot of two other schools that suffered similar fates: Sacred Heart and St. Dominic’s.

It will probably not surprise you that money has played a key role in the dominolike history of these schools. I was there for the first exchange.

Ten years ago, the Catholic archdiocese was set to close Sacred Heart, a venerable, nearly all-black school in the Western Addition. I wrote a series of columns on why it would be a terrible idea, and in a rare victory, the archdiocese relented.

But the school still suffered from enrollment problems, and a few well-meaning souls intervened and decided to merge Sacred Heart with St. Dominic’s — a Band-Aid solution as it turned out.

Then, a very rich man named Fred Furth stepped in and decided to give $5 million toward a new school named after his late daughter, and the Megan Furth Academy was born, with a well-healed board that raised considerable donations. But Furth ran into some tough times and stopped contributing to the new school, and it ultimately needed a permanent home.

So in Mission Dolores’ fading fortunes, the academy found salvation. Officials from Megan Furth are selling the spacious Sacred Heart School for some $8 million, money which will go to the new academy. With it they get all the trappings — classrooms, parking, a rectory and a usable gymnasium.

But they also get some hurt feelings. Last week, Mission Dolores’ popular longtime principal, Andi Gualco, announced that she would not be returning. Only two of the nine teachers at the school are being retained. Parents have expressed concerns about the changes, some of which will be addressed at a meeting Tuesday.

Bob Lalanne, head of the board at the academy, said that the way the changeover took place was inevitable because the new school recently received a $500,000 technology grant and they needed a fully qualified teaching staff to implement it.

“This is going to be a wonderful model for inner-city Catholic education,” he said. “This is an opportunity where we can liquidate real estate and pour the money into quality education. We look at this as two groups of families coming together into a new program.”

Yet mergers are always messy things. When something new is phased in, it means something that existed is being phased out. It may end up being a great program — only time will tell.

But you can understand the unease. A bunch of people will soon be without paychecks. Megan Furth recently held a fundraiser at the Fairmont Hotel that raised several hundred thousand dollars.

That’s a gulf that needs a bridge.

Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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