Three weeks after the St. John Lutheran Church congregation voted to close its school after this school year, they voted 55-27 to allow Walther Lutheran High School to run a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school at St. John beginning next fall. Walther, which is located in Melrose Park and is the largest Lutheran high school in the state, will assume responsibility for costs related to personnel and curriculum, while the St. John congregation will provide the facility and pay for its maintenance.
The St. John voters assembly had decided on Feb. 25 not to reopen the school next fall because of concerns about the church’s financial situation and the school’s viability. The church took out a $204,000 loan to pay for expenses during the 2006-07 year. And it is projecting a deficit of $123,000 next year, not including the cost of operating the school, according to Rev. David Kluge. Enrollment at the school, which as recently as 2000 had topped 250, is down to 80.
But days later Don Gillingham, principal of Walther Lutheran, called to discuss ways to keep the school going. One of those options was the partnership between Walther and St. John that was eventually approved.
Walther Lutheran was not acting altruistically, Gillingham said: it had a self-interest in intervening. “We’ve been noticing that there’s been a decline in the number of students enrolled in Lutheran schools and we’ve decided we really need to upgrade the quality of Lutheran education,” he said. St. John has traditionally provided 10 percent of Walther’s freshman class and, Gillingham said, “the loss of that pool of students would be significant.”
Gillingham wanted to be sure that the school would be financially viable, though, so at a meeting on March 8 he asked for commitments from St. John parents guaranteeing that their children would attend the school next year. He thought that a ratio of 1 teacher for every 15 students would be feasible, so he was looking for a total of 60 students, which would allow 4 teachers.
However, only 48 students from levels pre-kindergarten to eighth grade committed. Heading into a March 15 meeting of the Walther Lutheran Board of Directors, Gillingham expected to agree to open a pre-kindergarten to second grade school, levels in which a sufficient number of students were signed up. But the board proved willing to make a more substantial commitment, and voted at the meeting to offer to assume responsibility for the entire pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school.
After Walther Lutheran had approved the agreement, all that remained was for the St. John voters assembly to agree to take on the cost of maintaining its facility, which was projected at roughly $87,500 per year. At a meeting of the assembly on March 18, speakers were almost evenly split on whether to approve the partnership with Walther Lutheran.
Norman Young, vice chairman of the board of directors of both Walther and St. John, said that the school is vitally important because “this is the only outreach we have in the community.”
However, Ron Riley, speaking for many others, said, “I support Lutheran education. What I don’t support is being in a partnership where we have $200,000 in debt. We can’t afford to be in any more debt.”
Despite those concerns, the congregation did vote to allow its board to finalize arrangements with Walther, which plans to spend the coming months trying to attract as many students as possible. It will look beyond Proviso Township, where there is competition from other Lutheran schools, to Oak Park, Berwyn, and Cicero for potential students.