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Church-state issue clouds Ind. schools' conversion

By The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — A plan to create what could be the first U.S. public charter schools run by a Roman Catholic archdiocese is meeting resistance from those who worry about whether religious messages and icons will really stay out of classrooms and hallways.

Mayor Greg Ballard calls the plan an innovative way to keep schools open so they can fill the needs of families in the struggling areas surrounding the schools. Archdiocese officials saw an opportunity to keep the schools open despite a growing budget deficit.

"A good neighborhood school is always a good thing to have," Ballard said. "These schools have been around for a while and obviously have trouble making ends meet, but they still provide a valuable service for these neighborhoods."

The city approved the plan April 5 to convert St. Anthony's and St. Andrew & St. Rita Academy in a move that would qualify the schools for nearly $1 million in state funding in the first year.

That means some changes: Crucifixes and statues of saints must be removed from every classroom and office at both schools. Bibles sitting on display tables in hallways and saint statues in stairwells at St. Anthony must go.

At St. Andrew & St. Rita, two large limestone crosses are part of the outside wall of the building. The board will have to get creative with those, said Connie Zittnan, director of the Mother Theodore Catholic Academies, which currently runs the city's six urban Catholic schools.

Both schools will end religious-education classes during the school day, archdiocese spokesman Greg Otolski said.

Concerns about maintaining separation of church and state have already prompted a national watchdog group to write the mayor's office with its concerns.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it was concerned about the extent of the archdiocese's willingness to end all school prayer and remove religious icons, as well as about how Catholic teachers who remain will be trained to understand the constitutional duties of public school teachers.

"We are certainly going to be watching the situation as closely as we can and making noise about it when we see things going on that should not be," said Leona E. Balek, president of the group's Indiana chapter.

A national group that authorizes charter schools and management officials say the plan would mark the first time in the country that an archdiocese would run public charter schools. Catholic church leaders in New York, and Washington, D.C., have converted parish schools into charter schools, but those were operated by secular organizations.

Charter schools are generally free of many of the curriculum, budget and other regulations imposed on traditional public schools. The Mother Theodore Catholic Academies will continue to manage the day-to-day operations of the two Indianapolis charter schools, but it will do the bookkeeping offsite so that there is no confusion between the finances of the private and public schools, which require different levels of accountability to the government, Zittnan said.

The two schools will be renamed this summer by parents. Each will have spots for 24 students per grade level. The schools will hold a lottery if applications exceed available spots. Current teachers will have to reapply for their jobs, but Otolski expects that many will return after the transition.

The archdiocese has long subsidized the schools because low-income families couldn't afford full tuition.

The schools will have to walk a careful line as they learn the rules for admissions, expulsions and accountability for funds for public schools, said Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

"This switch goes far beyond saying, 'Well, we're no longer going to say prayers,'" Richmond said. "There is a whole set of obligations that public schools have to students and to the public that private schools do not have.

"I think that's a greater challenge than saying you're going to take the religion out."

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Last system update: Friday, April 23, 2010 | 17:17:36

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