After finding out this month that their small Catholic school is closing this summer, dozens of Mound families are mobilizing to raise $400,000 to save the school.
More than 400 parents, students, teachers, parishioners and community members rallied at Our Lady of the Lake Catholic School last week after church leaders told them that, despite assurances a month ago that it would stay open, the school will close due to a dramatic decline in enrollment and funding in the last few years.
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis says it's the parish's decision to shut down the school. It is the only Catholic school in the metro area that's closing at this time.
"The last resort is to close the school," archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso said.
After struggling financially the last few years, the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school that opened in 1951 is now slated to close after its last day May 30 -- unless parents can raise enough money and convince parish leaders to keep it open one more year.
Enrollment has dipped significantly -- from 238 students in 2002 to this year's 117 students. Church leaders project the numbers of school-age children will continue to decline, dropping to fewer than 100 students next year. That means a large loss in tuition, despite the rising cost of education.
"It's not something we like to see," Accurso said. "But you see that across the country. Both public and private schools have these demographic changes."
In 2011, the archdiocese shut down three of its 98 schools -- part of a historic reorganization plan that included other schools under "urgent review" because of declining or stagnant enrollment and revenue.
Our Lady of the Lake wasn't on that list, but it was one of three west metro schools on a "watch list" required to prove its sustainability, parent Kassie Rickie said.
So when a marketing campaign was launched in October, she was optimistic the school was about to make a comeback.
Instead, she and her three children, who have attended the school for eight years, were shocked to hear of its closure.
"It just seemed like we had the rug pulled out from under us," she said. "If you move 100 kids from Westonka, our community as a whole will suffer. It will impact businesses in the community, the housing market, the whole thing."
Messages left with Principal Ellen Feuling and the Rev. Tim Dolan were either not returned or referred to Accurso.
He said the decision came Dec. 29, adding that "perhaps new information came to light." There are seven Catholic schools in a 10-mile radius of Our Lady of the Lake, he said, that families can attend instead.
But Rickie and her family are determined to stay in their close-knit community.
"We have an unbelievably special environment," she said. "There's nothing like Our Lady of the Lake anywhere."
By last Friday, parents said they had raised $250,000, nearing the $400,000 they say is needed to keep the 62-year-old school open another three years.
"The school is part of what we do as a parish," parent Mike Reier said. "We're not going to let it go."
If they can convince parish leaders to keep it open another year, at that point, they say, they'd let the parish decide what's best for the school.
One option would be to reopen it as an independent school. Reier, who owns a marketing and sales company and is heading up the parents' efforts, said he thinks the school eventually needs to reopen as a Christian school to attract additional families in Mound and survive the demographic changes in the area long-term. He also envisions launching unique programs such as a health-and-wellness curriculum that could attract new families.
"The church schools simply can't stand on their own," he said. "We have to reverse the tide of faith-based education going down the drain."
But, Reier added, he knows opening a school to all faiths would be a controversial idea not likely to gain much support, if any, from Catholic leaders -- a notion the archdiocese spokesman confirmed.
"If it stays open, we want it to remain a Catholic school," Accurso said. "We're committed to Catholic education."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib