The Hamburg archdiocese is planning to close eight of the 21 Catholic schools it runs in the northern German port city in an attempt to stop itself from falling further into debt. The news has shocked local parents.
The archdiocese was forced to make the decision after sliding almost €80 million ($97 million) into debt, Hamburg Vicar General Ansgar Thim said Friday.
"This far-reaching, painful cut is very difficult for us," the reverend said, adding that the move was "inevitable" given the church's financial situation.
He described the closures as a necessary "first step," warning that more cuts may have to follow to secure a lasting future for the Catholic school system.
Around 9,000 students currently attend the 21 schools run by the Catholic Church in Hamburg. Now eight of those institutions will be shutdown. The remaining 13 will be made "future proof" and "developed" to meet high quality standards, Thim said.
Students are expected to be able to finish their schooling while attendance is gradually faded out. Five of the schools won't be accepting any new students for the 2018/19 year, the archdiocese's school department said. Teachers employed at those schools will also eventually be moved to the 13 remaining locations.
An organization representing parents said it was deeply disappointed by the decision. Spokesman Henrik Lesaar said the archdiocese had betrayed their trust.
"We cannot allow the financial crisis of the archdiocese to massively damage Catholic school life in Hamburg," he said.
Another father said he felt "a sense of helplessness" about the decision, adding that he couldn't imagine how the affected sites would survive as "thinned out ghost schools" while their student populations shrink.
Local politician Birgit Stöver pointed a finger at the city government, currently comprised of a left-leaning SPD and Green party coalition.
"What's also to blame are the years of insufficient funding from the city for operations and renovations," said Stöver, who is the education spokesperson for the center-right CDU.
Despite receiving state subsidies and school fees, the archdiocese is struggling with a renovation backlog in the hundreds of millions, as well as a hole in the pension fund for teachers.
Just over a year ago, the church embarked on structural reform that resulted in the transfer of responsibility for the area's 21 schools from the now-dissolved Association of Catholic Schools to the archdiocese. The change only added to the church's debt woes.
According to an audit by consulting firm Ernst & Young last month, the archdiocese could accrue €353 million in debt by 2021 unless drastic measures are taken.
The archdiocese is also reviewing hundreds of other properties in the area, including churches and parish houses, in an effort to curb spending.
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