Years of declining enrollment and deficit spending have come to a head for St. John’s Lutheran School on Circle Avenue, and congregation members recently voted to close the institution.

Officials at the parochial school said the decision was made with heavy hearts, but it’s clear that the congregation can no longer afford to subsidize the school without also putting the church in the red. Some 92 members of the congregation weighed in on the decision during Sunday services on Feb. 25.

Those devoted to the school and its pre-school through eighth-grade curriculum wept openly, according to one congregation member.

“It was sad to see,” St. John’s alum Gary Neubieser said.

Neubieser, a Forest Park resident, was baptized at the church in 1946 and graduated from its school in 1960. He and his wife Tina sent their daughter to St. John’s and now their son will be among those students in the final graduating class.

“I’m sentimental about it, but we have to be positive and look forward,” Neubieser said.

The school opened its doors to an inaugural class of 25 students in 1870, according to its Web site. The church, as it stands now at 305 Circle Ave., was constructed in 1914 after moving from Oak Park. At this location, a school was first built in 1904, however, the facilities there today were completed in 1964.

Business Administrator Karen Karafa said she first noticed the school’s financial problems eight years ago. Tuition never fully covered the school’s operating costs, and the burden on the congregation was becoming too much. A practice of liquidating the church’s assets to pay operating expenses wasn’t helping either, Karafa said.

“We were using money for property improvements, but you don’t use your assets to pay your bills,” Karafa said. “That’s what was being done. We were borrowing from ourselves.”

The church recently took out a $204,000 loan to help with day-to-day costs, but to keep the school open another year would require another loan of at least that size. Taking on more debt with a forecast for even smaller class sizes would have jeopardized the church’s financial standing, Karafa said.

For a church member to send one child to St. John’s this year, tuition is only $2,730. For a non-member the cost is $4,200. A discount is given to those families sending more than one child.

According to Karafa, there are 80 students enrolled this year. Thirty of those kids come from families who attend church services at St. John’s. The Neubieser’s are one of only eight families in Forest Park paying tuition to the Lutheran institution.

In addition to trying to subsidize its revenue, cuts were made to reduce expenses, David Walz, chairman of the St. John’s Board of Directors said. The teaching staff was slashed and grade levels combined into single classrooms. Walz, a 17-year church member with two kids at St. John’s, said some of those efforts may have backfired.

Reductions in staffing certainly resulted in savings, Walz said, but it’s possible that asking parents to put their kids in a classroom with students from other grade levels helped dampen enrollment. In the 2005-06 school year, Walz said there were roughly 125 kids at St. John’s. They were hoping to enroll 140 this year.

“Combined classrooms are not generally what parents are looking for for their kids,” Walz said.

Like other Lutheran schools, St. John’s is governed autonomously in that the church owns the facilities and the board of directors answers to the congregation rather than a bishop. For professional advice the congregation turns to The Northern Illinois District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Reed Sander is the executive for education at this advisory office in Hillside.

According to Sander, part of the budget crisis being experienced by St. John and other parochial schools is caused by a population shift that’s sending families to more rural areas of the state. More critical than that, Sander said, is the larger issue of education funding.

“Our country and our state legislators need to look at how education is funded,” Sander said.

Forest Park’s Lutheran school is not alone with this problem. A potential closing of St. Bernardine’s, a Catholic school on the south side of town, has also been discussed at points in recent years. In September 2006, an assistant superintendent for the Archdiocese of Chicago said her office closed two or three Catholic schools in 2005. In years prior, more than a dozen were closed in a single year.

Both Walz and Karafa are looking for meaningful ways to continue the school’s relationship with the community. For example, the classroom space may be rented to other educational institutions. The church is also aware of the village’s interest in improving parking along nearby Madison Street, and Walz said that is a conversation worth having.

“That’s definitely something that has crossed our mind,” Walz said. “We need to talk with the village and the (Chamber of Commerce).”

The board is not interested in tearing down the school facility, Walz said.

At the conclusion of the school year in 2007, St. John’s will continue to operate its summer program for younger students. Once that program concludes in August, St. John’s Lutheran School will close.