PORTAGE PARK — Parishioners, teachers and parents at Our Lady of Victory School met Friday night to begin coming up with a plan to save the Northwest Side school.
That comes after the Archdiocese of Chicago told parishioners earlier this week the school, along with five other Catholic schools in the Chicagoland area, would likely close at the end of the year.
To remain open, the school must find a way to close its current budget deficit of $400,000.
More than 300 people packed inside the school's cafeteria Friday night to brainstorm ways to come up with alternate financing for the school.
But the parish does not have much time. When announcing the closure on Wednesday evening, Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, the archdiocese's superintendent, said any plan to save the school must be delivered to the archdiocese by the end of the month.
Many parishioners said the news came as a shock. Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th), whose family has been members of the parish for generations, said he thinks closing the school would be "devastating to the community."
"Give us some time. Give us some forewarning," Cullerton said. "It's unthinkable, from my standpoint, that there wasn't more thought put into this process.
"To give us three weeks to come up with a plan, it's just very insensitive. I think it's unfair, and I think it's wrong."
Despite the tall order, officials said people left Friday's meeting optimistic about saving the school.
Mary Beth Frystak, director of religious education at the Our Lady of Victory, said parishioners developed plans to hold fundraisers and solicit donations from community members and alumni. Frystak said the school has also approached some local businesses to help host fundraisers.
Frystak said the meeting was "very positive."
"It's not impossible, and that's what we believe," Frystak said of finding the funds to remain open. "And there is going to be a miracle here. This school is not going to close."
Our Lady of Victory School, which has been operating for more than 100 years, has been on the archdiocese's watch list for years due to budget problems and low enrollment.
But the school has seen great improvement under the new leadership of Principal Jennifer Hodge, who took over in 2012. When Hodge came to the school, 80 children were enrolled in the school, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade. That enrollment has grown to 170 students as of this week.
The archdiocese acknowledged the school's turnaround, but McCaughey told the parish the archdiocese could simply no longer subsidize the school due to its own "fiscal crisis."
The archdiocese has given the school $1.2 million since 2010, including $400,000 the past two years for its operating budget, which breaks down to more than $2,000 in subsidies per student.
But the archdiocese is cutting $10 million over two years from its school budget.
Our Lady of Victory's total operating budget is $1.1 million. With tuition of about $5,000 per year, enrollment would have to be 265 students for the school to be self-sufficient, officials said.
On Friday, parishioners discussed coming up with a three-year plan to close the school's budget gap. It will depend heavily on donations. An anonymous donor put up $80,000 already, and Frystak said the donations have been coming in since word spread of the plans to close.
Frystak said parents and teachers at Friday's meeting were optimistic the school would stay open.
"Their heads are all up pretty high tonight," she said. "I can tell you, a few nights ago it was a wake, and tonight, it's a party."
If the school does close, the archdiocese will provide students $1,000 toward tuition at another Catholic school. The physical building belongs to the parish, but the archdiocese would not allow the parish to rent the building out to Chicago Public Schools or a private charter school if it does close to prevent competition with other Catholic schools in the area.
Community members are worried about what will happen to the parish if the school does close.
"All my kids were baptized there, went to school there. My mother and father can say the same thing," said Cullerton. "I know they're not talking about closing the church down, but I don't know what kind of Catholic community it will be without a school."
Cullerton and others said they hope the archdiocese extends the deadline for the parish to come up with a plan.
McCaughey said a final decision will come by the end of January to allow parents ample time to find another school if Our Lady of Victory shuts its doors, but many parents were angered at the timing of the announcement. The deadline to apply selective-enrollment CPS schools was Dec. 15.
Other Catholic schools slated to close are St. Florian School in Hegewisch, Santa Maria Del Popolo School in north suburban Mundelein, St. Bernadette in Evergreen Park and St. Christopher in Midlothian, according to reports.
CONTRIBUTING: Heather Cherone