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Morgan Park Catholic elementary school still must raise $160,000 to stay open

St. Walter Elementary School in Morgan Park

St. Walter Elementary School in Morgan Park serves 118 students. Tuition is $6,000 and some 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced school lunch. | Google Streetview

St. Walter in Morgan Park calls itself “the small parish that does things in a big way.”

The church will put that slogan to test this week as it fights to keep its elementary school from going under.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has given St. Walter Elementary School until Jan. 7 to raise $360,345 to keep the doors open for the 2019-2020 school year.

The money is needed to cover expected operational deficits this school year and the next.

Principal Sharon O’Toole, who came to St. Walter in 2016, said the school has raised nearly $200,000 in cash donations and commitments since September.

But O’Toole said the school’s small, middle-class community has given all it can. She’s now praying for big donors from outside the parish to swoop in.

“I really believe there are people out there who will come through big time if they just hear our story,” she said. “St. Walter will be able to rise above this challenge and we will continue to prosper for years to come.”

St. Walter’s serves 118 students. Tuition is $6,000 and some 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced school lunch. Just over half of the student body is black, while 56 percent of all students come from non-Catholic households.

The school lost nearly half of its student body over the past decade, as administrators tapped into the school’s endowment to keep it afloat, O’Toole said.

But St. Walter has reached an impasse: The Archdiocese projects the school to run an operating deficit of $525,000 by the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

St. Walter needs to cover that deficit — or it won’t re-open next fall.

To help shore up its finances, the Archdiocese awarded St. Walter a $100,000 grant in September. The school’s remaining $60,655 endowment has also been earmarked to help close the gap.

The Archdiocese said it will not provide St. Walter another grant in the future but said in a statement it is committed to working with the school “to ensure vital futures so that we can meet the needs of the community.”

Archdiocese Catholic schools superintendent Jim Rigg said St. Walter’s enrollment troubles are the biggest factor driving the school’s deficit.

“If financial and enrollment trends remain the same I would suspect that the deficit will increase each year,” Rigg said.

Rigg also said the Archdiocese is willing to extend the deadline if a substantial amount of money is raised by Jan. 7, though he did not give a specific dollar amount.

O’Toole said St. Walker’s enrollment has leveled off in recent years. She hopes the school raises enough money to attract more students in the coming years.

“It’s hard to market a school when the word on the street is that it’s about to close,” she said. “We want the community to know St. Walter will rise above this challenge.”