BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Just over a month after announcing the closure of the high school, Runnels School officials announced they will also be closing the middle school and elementary at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
A letter announcing the closure states Runnels, the oldest independent school in Baton Rouge, has been battling a decline in enrollment over the past decade.
“In the past ten years, we have lost 34% of our enrollment,” said Kelly Runnels, founder of the school. “When enrollment goes down by 34%, guess what? Your operating funds go down 34%.”
That budget shortfall led to the school going millions of dollars into debt, leaving it unable to fund operations.
In a letter sent to parents Sunday, March 8, Kelly and Gladys Runnels said, “It is bad enough to contemplate replacing a large percentage of our faculty next year, but our ability to hire new teachers at the salaries we can afford, without the benefit of tuition for their children in high school grades.”
In the letter, Runnels told parents who prepaid toward the 2020-21 school year that refunds would “be subject to funds available upon completion of restructuring of school real estate. This could take up to sixty days.” Monday, Runnels officials said those parents would get their money back.
“Every one of them will be paid back,” Gladys Runnels said. “Not today, but an investor is coming on just for this purpose so that we will have money to pay every one of them back.”
The news came as a shock to teachers. Mary Winnett has taught at the school for 12 years.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Winnett said. “I think we knew things were difficult, but we just can’t believe that it’s really going to happen and it was just devastating. We all really and truly are just sick to to our stomachs.”
Kelly Runnels said he does not know if there was anything they could have done to turn the tide. He cited increasing access to free, quality education as a significant factor.
“I’m not sure that we handled the wind down as well as we could have, but to avoid it, I really don’t know because it’s, there’s just so many opportunities for free schools now a days and surrounding parishes and charter schools and magnet schools and all free,” he said. “Free is hard to compete with.”
School officials said they have worked out an agreement that allows students to complete the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. The Runnels also said they’ll provide assistance with locating new school placements for currently enrolled students.
“Our administrators are working on sending home a list of schools that would be great for our kids and they’ve talked to the principals of those schools and have been very open,” Gladys said.
For teachers like Winnett, the future is uncertain, but she’s not going to think about that until the lights are turned off at Runnels.
“Once the final kid goes in their carpool, we’re all going to break down, but I know I don’t want to think about it, honestly,” Winnett said. “I just want to wait and when it’s really and truly over, that’s when it’s going to hit and that’s when I’ll let the emotions out.”
Read the full letter from Runnels below:
"Dear Members of Runnels School Family,
Since the mid-1960's Runnels has been an integral part of the educational and cultural landscape of Baton Rouge. It has also been a vital ingredient in the lives of hundreds – and thousands – of the students, faculty, and staff members of Runnels. These thousands of individuals did not just be served by the school, they also in countless ways helped create, promote, and sustain the magical nature of the school.
With hearts overflowing with pride – and misery – Gladys and I must report to you that Runnels School cannot continue to serve our beloved community any longer, after the close of school year 2019-2020, as approved by The Board of Trustees.
With gratitude to all of you for joining us in this truly noble endeavor, we will attempt to help you understand the many reasons that have compelled us to this decision. The reasons are all fundamentally financial in nature.
The reason most apparent is the decade-long decline in our enrollment, a factor experienced by virtually all tuition-charging schools. In our case, our enrollment has steadily declined by 34% over the past ten years. Unlike most tuition-charging schools, Runnels has had no financial support by a parent organization, such as a church, which means that a 34% decline in enrollment implies a similar decline in the funds available to operate the school. In our 55-year history, we have learned that the solution is not to raise tuition – that inevitably results in even greater decrease in enrollment. We have also learned that modest tuition increases (3% - 4%) are usually accepted by the market, and that has been our practice.
We have also learned that economies such as discontinuing some courses and services is not the answer either. We have learned from experience that many parents are unwilling to forgo any programming that is important to their children, and all of our programming is very important to large segments of our student population. We certainly understand, but it does make it difficult to consider eliminating features to cut costs.
A more subtle financial hazard became clear to us as we attempted to study the details of the planned “Pre-K to 8th Grade School.” The already marginal enrollment in those grades contains a significant number of Monthly Contracts, requiring relatively little cash at enrollment time, with a significant fraction of the payments not due until the summer months. In practical terms, we cannot force parents to honor those contracts, leaving parents to opt out of the agreement if they cannot accept (for example) cost-saving efforts by the school. The current enrollment in the Preschool program is woefully short of being break-even, and the usual spring-time influx of enrollments has not materialized, neither at the preschool nor in the elementary and junior high grades.
Another huge problem with planning for the Pre-K to 8th Grade School is the dismal prospect of staffing it. Many current staff members in those grades have their own children enrolled in high school grades, who will not be served in the future. This is again a financial issue. It is bad enough to contemplate replacing a large percentage of our faculty next year, but our ability to hire new teachers at the salaries we can afford, without the benefit of tuition for their children in high school grades.
There is no realistic reason to believe that declines in enrollment will abate. The decline in the past decade was eerily steady, unaffected by changes in school leadership, or flood, or anything else. The underlying explanation has to be the current and increasing abundance of good, and free schools in surrounding parishes and in charter schools and magnet schools in Baton Rouge.
We have explored every strategy we could imagine to continue to be able to offer the magic of Runnels School – but have not succeeded. In financial terms, we are currently millions of dollars behind and to continue the effort will only worsen the situation.
The only asset the school has to pay all of its debts is to sell the school property for an amount within sight of the appraised value. That is not a “fire-sale” that could possibly pay off Investor Bank's mortgage but little else – not the pre-paid tuition payments, and not any other debts of the school. The good news is that there is an investor who is willing to negotiate with Investor Bank to “work out” our loan arrangement with them, to allow our current students to finish this school year with all the accolades, celebrations and joy that have always been a part of spring semesters at Runnels School.
Prepayment of tuition and fees previously paid will be subject to funds available upon completion of restructuring of school real estate. This could take up to sixty days.
Our elementary and preschool leaders and staff will provide assistance to our families in locating options for new school placements for the children. They will help in every way possible to make the transition a smooth one – providing recommendations and records, and contacting other good schools to tell them about our situation and about our wonderful students. They will be a blessing at whatever school their parents choose for them to attend, as they have been in our school family.
We thank you for loving our school and for allowing us to be a part of your children's lives for so many years. It has been our greatest joy.
Gladys and Kelly Runnels"
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