Parents fret as school faces threat of closing Money woes plague St. Elizabeth's


Parents of students at St. Elizabeth's in Highlandtown were alarmed yesterday by news that the 91-year-old school may close if administrators fail to bring its budget into line.

"It was a surprise, a real surprise," said Jane Dittmar, who was picking up her two children from the school yesterday. She had spent the day calling organizations -- from Morgan State University to the Orioles -- for help to keep the school open.

"St. Elizabeth's has been in my family for umpteen years," Ms. Dittmar said of the Southeast Baltimore Catholic school.

Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of elementary and secondary schools for the Baltimore Archdiocese, told her and other parents at a meeting Tuesday night that deep cuts would have to be made to boost the school's chances of remaining open.

Parents had left the meeting believing that embezzlement of school funds by a former employee was partly responsible for the financial problems. But Dr. Valenti said yesterday that was not so. He said that of the $40,000 that was stolen, insurance covered all but $5,000. The former employee was never prosecuted, he said.

The superintendent said the main reason for St. Elizabeth's problems was shrinking enrollment. Only 259 children enrolled this year, compared with projections of 320. With annual tuition averaging $2,000 per student, the school will collect about $122,000 less in tuition than had been projected. Dr. Valenti cited problems with "stewardship" as another source of the school's financial woes, which include a debt of $433,000. He declined to elaborate.

To try to keep the school open, he said the archdiocese and St. Elizabeth's parish plan to eliminate three full-time teaching positions (there are 12 now), two teacher aides, the librarian and one of two part-time bookkeepers. The cuts are to take effect Nov. 8.

He also said the school's guidance counselor and assistant principal will have to become full-time classroom teachers, and that the school will seek private grants. "Parents fully understand the difficulty of the problem," Dr. Valenti said, adding, "There might be some trade-off in reduction of services, but that doesn't mean the quality of education has to be forsaken or forfeited."

He said Tuesday's meeting "was a rallying call to parents to say, 'We need your help to make sure this works.' "

Dr. Valenti said the school's board will have to decide whether to raise tuition, which has increased steadily over the years.

Tuition was about $1,400 four years ago.

Principal Richard G. Gatto said he's been dealing with budgetary problems since he arrived at the school three years ago. The embezzlement occurred before his tenure.

said past budgetary constraints have forced increases in class size over the past several years. Most classes have 22 to 26 children, but some have 32 or 33, he said.

Mr. Gatto was optimistic about the school's future. "This is not an insurmountable thing," he said.

Parents, although puzzled by the school's financial problems when they're paying $2,000 for tuition, said they would work to keep St. Elizabeth's alive. Many said the archdiocese should make up the shortfall.

"Some people have left because of the high tuition," said Deborah Larman, whose two children attend St. Elizabeth's. "We've been paying substantially higher tuition than other schools and we didn't know why.

"It's an excellent school," she said. "It would be a shame for that school to close down. I have two daughters in there who, if they had been in public school, would have been lost."

Ms. Dittmar, who, like her parents, graduated from St. Elizabeth's, said she phoned Morgan State to inquire about teacher interns and the Orioles to ask about sponsoring a card show to raise money.

She's also spent time talking to other parents about volunteering at the school.

"We're all working people here," she said. "We don't have real expensive jobs, making money hand over fist. But we want our children in a good environment so they'll have good morals when they grow up. It's up to us. It's our responsibility. These are our children."

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