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Duluth Catholic elementary school slated to close

St. Michael's Catholic School in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood is not included on a list of schools that would remain open under a new plan. (Photo by WDIO-TV)

The 94-year-old St. Michael's Lakeside School is slated to close under a plan that would unify Duluth Catholic school operations and open a new high school.

The plan for a citywide Catholic school with multiple campuses has been in the works for several months, and has been shaped in part through surveys, focus groups and community meetings. The planning team has recommended to the Duluth Area Catholic Schools board that St. James Catholic School become the western campus for elementary and middle school students, that Holy Rosary School become the eastern campus elementary and that St. John's School become the eastern campus for middle school, also housing the new high school. That means the elimination of the PreK-5 St. Michael's school.

"It is so frustrating, because this is such a great little school," said David McKee, a trustee of St. Michael's Parish.

The school of about 100 students, with the majority enrolled in pre-kindergarten, is "financially sound," he said, so he's not sure why at least the preschool program isn't being kept. A church survey has shown "phenomenal" support for the school, he said, but St. Michael's wasn't represented in the decision-making process, of which the planning team was only one part.

"It's not realistic to keep (all of the Duluth schools) open indefinitely, but St. Michael's was, to a large extent, excluded from the discussion," McKee said.

Messages left for Diocese of Duluth spokesman Kyle Eller and director of schools Cynthia Zook were not returned Monday.

Hilaire Hauer and Bob Lisi, the co-chairwoman and chairman of the planning team Called to Be One, released a statement in response to messages from the News Tribune.

They said "hundreds of people," including parents, students, teachers and pastors, contributed ideas.

"We empathize with all of our Catholic school families and parishes as they work through the recommended changes, but believe the work we are accomplishing together addresses, to the greatest extent, a positive step forward in providing sustainable, high quality Catholic school education in our community," the statement said.

The board is expected to discuss the recommended plan Thursday, and once it makes a decision, will submit the plan to Bishop Paul Sirba, who started the planning process. The changes are expected to be in place for the coming school year.

Materials from the planning group sent to families last week said the naming of the new school and campuses "will be an exciting, collaborative and unifying first step for the students, school community and leadership team."

About 600 students are enrolled in Duluth Area Catholic Schools. Declining enrollment and a desire to offer a long-sought continuum of Catholic education are behind the changes, diocese officials have said.

Under the current model, each school in the diocese is governed by an individual or cluster of parishes and operates with its own faculty, staff, administrator and advisory boards and commissions. The new model, at least in Duluth, would mean sharing of services, curriculum and some staff.

It was said previously that a study would be done to help determine whether to keep each of the four schools open and where a high school would best fit. The diocese worked with a consultant. McKee said he and another parish trustee are expected to meet with Sirba to discuss their concerns.

Formerly part of the Duluth group of Catholic schools, Proctor's St. Rose School closed in 2013 because of declining school and parish enrollment.