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Education

From Montana to Buffalo, by way of a pandemic and mass shooting

A bust shot of Tim Uhl, wearing a blue shirt, in front of a gray background.
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Tim Uhl left Montana Catholic schools to become schools superintendent for the Buffalo Catholic Diocese in April 2021.

Tim Uhl is finishing his first full academic year as schools superintendent for the Buffalo Catholic Diocese. All he's had deal with was a culture change, bankruptcy, a pandemic and a mass shooting.

Uhl has spent his entire career in Catholic education, and is well known as a blogger and podcaster through “Catholic School Matters,” which focuses on best practices and innovation in Catholic education.

He arrived in Buffalo after seven years as schools superintendent for the Great Falls-Billings Catholic Diocese in Montana, so he said the geographic and culture change has been a struggle in of itself. Both dioceses filed bankruptcy in clergy sex abuse scandals — but then more piled on.

"We've kind of ping-ponged between different crises and different just gut-wrenching things," he said. "I mean, we kind of get out of the pandemic and you think everything's good, and then the Buffalo massacre happens and you think, 'Oh, my gosh,'"

The Buffalo diocese operates schools in six counties across Western New York. WBFO asked what's been the mood in local Catholic schools since the mass shooting on May 14?

"I heard one of our principals say yesterday that they had parents come in and say that they're moving out of Buffalo because there's just too much anxiety and too much fear," he said. "Uprooting your family and moving is a big decision. I don't know if they're talking about moving to the suburbs or moving to Syracuse. But, yeah, the schools that are in the city are very much impacted. It's tough," he said.

Uhl said "the challenge is how much do you talk about it and at what level."

"Because if you talk about it too much, then you're almost gonna feed the anxiety and the worry. But if you ignore it, then you're not acknowledging the reality that the students are working in," he said. "So that's a really fine line that I know every one of our schools are struggling with, because what works for one student might not work for the next."

As for the pandemic, he said it's had a unique impact on Catholic schools.

"I think the unique situation in the educational sector is that so much money flooded into the public schools, that they opened up all these new positions. So that's the disruption," he said. "It isn't so much about the actual pandemic, it's the fact that, suddenly, many of our teachers could double their salary. And they really can. I mean, our average teacher salary is still in the $30s and the average teacher public salary is in the $60s. That's the impact it's had."

Meanwhile, the comment period just closed May 31 on proposed new state Education Department rules to ensure "equivalency of instruction" in nonpublic schools compared to public schools, with a final decision expected this fall. Uhl said Catholic schools have a long tradition of accountability, but there was concern that oversight would be transferred to public school districts and boards of education.

"We're concerned that perhaps you might get a school board elected who may have a bias against religious schools or a bias against private schools in general, and may decide to make life very, very difficult for one of those schools," he said. "And so what we're trying to argue is, it needs to be a pathway that's sort of maintained through the Board of Regents and through the state department, not through a local school board."

During the lighter side of the conversation, WBFO also asked whether he's noticed any big differences between kids in Montana and kids here.

"They're just taller in Montana," he joked.

Perhaps it's all the beef.

But, he said, there are similarities among all kids.

"A lot of our schools in Montana were rural, right? And so you're gonna always tell the difference between rural and city kids," Uhl said. "But the kids in the bigger towns in Montana are very similar to the kids here and the number one struggle that kids are dealing with now is social media and technology. I mean, phones have changed their lives — and we're just starting to understand this portable device that's giving them instant feedback on whether they're good looking or not, or whether they have friends or not. It's a real challenge."

Looking forward, he said there's "a real need" to establish a culture of collaboration among his principals and schools.

"We want normal, but we also want to laugh. Because, you know, Catholic schools should be a place where students come alive, they feel loved, they feel connected and there's joy. And that's been really tough for the last few years," Uhl said. "We just have to acknowledge that there's been a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, a lot of disconnection in our society, as well as in our schools. We kind of feel uniquely poised to be able to address that, because our schools are really kind of set up around community, and they're agile enough where we can introduce new programs and new things. So that's what we're trying to build for next year."