St. Teresa School to close; kids sent to Holy Cross

HUTCHINSON — Despite unprecedented community fundraising efforts, the 108-year-old St. Teresa Catholic School will close for financial reasons this summer, Wichita Diocese leaders announced Friday.

Parents raised donations and pledges in the last two months that would plug most of this year's $144,000 shortfall.

The predominantly Hispanic and immigrant school in Hutchinson would also be the first Wichita Diocese school to close since 1997, shortly after the schools stopped charging tuition to Catholic families. Now, the schools rely on the generosity and income levels of parishioners.

"We don't get to sue the state of Kansas for money," diocese superintendent Bob Voboril said, referring to recent legal action public schools filed against the state.

Beginning next school year, St. Teresa students will attend Holy Cross Catholic School, two miles away.

"It's a devastating loss," said Deborah Castaneda, a leader in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, which helps fund St. Teresa. "You're losing part of your history."

The Wichita Diocese is the only one in the nation to run all of its schools tuition-free to Catholic families, which church officials said helps give low-income families access to Catholic education.

"I see the diocese going forward in helping minorities, but we are outside of Wichita," said Castaneda, who said St. Teresa supporters mainly have questions about how quickly the school's closing went from a possibility to a certainty.

"If Wichita is moving forward and growing, here is like a step back — to close a school that serves the majority of minorities."

School fundraisers

St. Teresa parent Esther Flores-Acosta said she was saddened, but not surprised, by Friday's decision by Bishop Michael Jackels.

"I really wasn't shocked because it was so quick," she said.

Flores-Acosta said she found out at the end of October that church leaders were seriously considering closing the elementary school that three generations of her family have attended. Her family's restaurant raised more than $2,000 for the school by putting on a breakfast last week.

Leaders of the two parishes that financially support St. Teresa voted earlier this month to recommend that Jackels close the school.

Jackels made the final decision.

"I am confident that these students will be warmly welcomed (at Holy Cross) in the spirit of Jesus, and that the special services offered for Spanish-speaking students at St. Teresa will be maintained in that same spirit," Jackels said in a statement Friday.

Castaneda, who was at the recommendation meeting, said many council members, including she, didn't know of the success of fundraising efforts until that night. That's why she didn't sign the recommendation to the bishop.

"Looking at what people have done in two months to raise this amount of money was overwhelming," Castaneda said. "If they can do this in two months, what can they do in a year?"

Projected revenue gap

Church leaders recommended closing St. Teresa because of a wide gap between projected revenue from Sunday donations and the $550,000 it takes to run the school each year, superintendent Voboril said.

He said St. Teresa supporters had raised more than $50,000 in cash since late October. Roughly another $90,000 in pledges were made — only if the school stayed open.

"The difficulty with fund-raising is you don't know if you can sustain it from year to year," Voboril said.

Members of Wichita Catholic churches are asked to tithe, or donate 10 percent of their income to the church.

The majority of Wichita parishes' tithing money goes to the schools, Voboril said.

The Wichita Diocese has a grant for parishes that serve low-income families. Last year, it disbursed $300,000 to schools with low-income students.

Voboril declined to break down the donations by school, but said St. Teresa received money from the fund.

The school has a small endowment, but Voboril said it didn't make much difference in the school's operating budget.

Some St. Teresa parents said they would be willing to pay some tuition to offset gaps in the school's budget.

But Voboril said not charging tuition has kept Wichita Catholic schools healthy while enrollment has declined nationwide.

"By the proportion we raise tuition, we lose enrollment," Voboril said. "We serve kids from all income levels."

Declining enrollment

Parents banding together to raise money to save a Catholic school isn't unusual, said Brian Gray, a spokesman for the National Catholic Education Association.

"The question is, can you do that every year without burning them out?" he said.

Even before the recession hit, Catholic schools have been declining, with 1 to 3 percent of the roughly 7,000 nationwide closing each year.

"Sometimes it's a loss of available students," Gray said. "Maybe there are lots of kids, but families can't afford tuition."

Nationwide, tuition at Catholic schools averages $3,000 a year for K-8 and more than $8,000 a year for high school.

Once enrollment dips below 200, leaders seriously consider whether a school should be kept open, Gray said.

"Now parents have expectations," he said. "With 100-plus students, you can't provide that kind of education. Sometimes you can't pay a fair wage" to staff.

St. Teresa's enrollment dropped 15 percent from last year, to 139 students today. In its heyday as a K-8 in 1966, the school had 229 students.

Move to Holy Cross

St. Teresa students who want to continue a Catholic education will go to Holy Cross, a predominantly white, higher-income school where enrollment is about 200.

Parents at both schools said their biggest concerns are larger class sizes. Less than half of St. Teresa's seven full-time teachers would go to Holy Cross with their students, Voboril said.

"The classroom space is not there," said Holy Cross parent Silvia Morales, adding that some of her children's classes have reached 25 students. "I can't fathom we can fit 100 more students."

St. Teresa supporters said the larger class sizes would disproportionately affect the education of low-income minority students, who now receive more individual attention in the smaller school. Many students also have parents without much education.

"The child is going to struggle and be behind if you take them out of a Catholic school where there are Spanish-speaking teachers," Castaneda said. "It's an injustice to them."

Most St. Teresa parents said they would continue Catholic education for their children even if it means transferring to Holy Cross.

Public schools in the area aren't an option, said Sylvia Diaz, mother of four St. Teresa's students.

"If I wanted an easy way out, I'd go to a public school," she said. "I'd get a bus and a good school. But I choose to get up and take them because I want them to have a Catholic education — a choice to send my kids to Catholic school."