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Portage Park Catholic School Among Six in Danger of Closing by Archdiocese

By Quinn Ford | January 9, 2014 11:57am | Updated on January 9, 2014 1:11pm
 Our Lady of Victory, 4434 N. Laramie.
Our Lady of Victory, 4434 N. Laramie.
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PORTAGE PARK — Our Lady of Victory School on the Northwest Side is likely to close at the end of the school year, one of a handful of Catholic schools in danger of shutting.

Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools, said six schools are being told this week that they must come up with alternative financing within the next few weeks or they'll be shut.

She declined to name the schools, saying "those schools deserve to hear it first" directly from Catholic school officials.

McCaughey broke the news to parents of Our Lady of Victory, 4434 N. Laramie Ave., on Wednesday. The Daily Herald reported that McCaughey on Monday night informed parents at Santa Maria Del Popolo School in north suburban Mundelein that their 85-student school is slated to close in June.

 Officials at a meeting at Our Lady of Victory said the school would likely close at the end of the school year.
Officials at a meeting at Our Lady of Victory said the school would likely close at the end of the school year.
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DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

In a follow-up call Thursday, McCaughey said she had four more schools to notify. A final decision on the unnamed schools won't be made until the end of January, she said, and called the situation "fluid."

Stil, schools face a longshot battle to find funding quickly. McCaughey told parents at Our Lady of Victory that the archdiocese can no longer subsidize the school because of what she called a “fiscal crisis” at the archdiocese.

“This is not about the leadership at the school, and it is not about the school’s academic achievement,” McCaughey said. “It is simply a fiscal issue.”

The archdiocese has given the school $1.2 million in the form of grants, loans and other support during the last four years, including $400,000 in each of the last two years, McCaughey said.

McCaughey apologized to the group of parents and teachers, saying she was sorry that the school, which has doubled its enrollment in the last two years to its current 170 students, did not have more time to solve its fiscal problems.

“I’m sorry,” McCaughey said, holding back tears. “I know what this does to families. I can’t begin to tell you how broken my heart is.”

Our Lady of Victory school had long been on the archdiocese’s watch list because of its fiscal problems and declining enrollment, but had begun to improve under Principal Jennifer Hodge, who took over in 2012, McCaughey said.

The school "has done all we asked,” McCaughey said. “If we had more time, I’m sure we could work on that deficit.”

Orders from the archdiocese’s finance council to cut $10 million over two years from the $23 million archdiocese school budget meant that it could no longer subsidize Our Lady of Victory, McCaughey said.

Several parents said they were angry to learn now that the school would close, especially since the deadline to apply to selective-enrollment Chicago Public Schools was Dec. 15, leaving them with limited options for next year.

McCaughey said the archdiocese would be willing to work with parents and school leaders to develop a plan that would keep the school open next year — provided it was entirely self-sufficient and required no help from the archdiocese except for $80,000 from a private, anonymous donor.

The archdiocese’s subsidy for Our Lady of Victory works out to more than $2,000 per student. Schools with subsidies of $1,000 are on a watch list.

 Students at Our Lady of Victory are pictured in a file photo.
Students at Our Lady of Victory are pictured in a file photo.
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Our Lady of Victory

“I know how disappointed some of you are, how betrayed some of you must feel,” McCaughey said.

Hodge said she would meet with parents and parishioners interested in crafting a plan Friday to review the school’s budget and begin brainstorming ideas.

The plan must cover three years of self-sufficient operation for the school in order to be viable, said Associate Superintendent for Operations Thomas McGrath. Enrollment would have to be 265 students in kindergarten through eighth grade for the school to be entirely self-sufficient.

In addition, that plan must be in place by the last week of January, to allow parents a chance to explore other Catholic schools during Catholic Schools Week, McCaughey said.

Students in good standing at the end of the school year at Our Lady of Victory will get $1,000 toward tuition at another Catholic school, McCaughey said.

“The people of this parish deserve better,” said Mary Beth Frystak, the church’s director of religious education. “We are at a high point after many years.”

The school’s total operating budget is $1.1 million. The building belongs to the parish, but the archdiocese would not allow it to be rented to a charter school or the Chicago Public Schools in an effort not to damage other Catholic schools in the area, McGrath said.

DNAinfo reporter and Our Lady of Victory parent Heather Cherone contributed to this report.