By Ivan Raconteur
“We are not closing. We prefer to think of this as opening a new chapter in the history of Christian education for the children of this congregation,” St. Mark’s Lutheran School Principal Dan Wacker said.
The school, in its present form, will cease to exist beginning with the 2008-09 school year, according to Wacker.
“This is not what we wanted to see, but it is a blessing that we can continue to offer Christian education for our students,” Wacker commented.
To do this, St. Mark’s will work in partnership with Zion Lutheran School in Mayer.
“We have been in talks with them for the last couple of years,” Wacker said. Committees from both churches worked out the details, and St. Mark’s congregation formally accepted the arrangement Tuesday.
Under the agreement, Zion will accept St. Mark’s students at the member tuition rate.
St. Mark’s congregation will offer its members 50 percent tuition assistance ($950) to help offset the tuition difference. St. Mark’s current member tuition is $1,300, and Zion’s is $1,900, Wacker said.
The actual cost to educate a student at St. Mark’s is $5,000, and the difference between tuition and the actual cost has been made up by donations from the congregation, fundraisers, and a matching program through Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, from which the school received $18,000 in matching gifts this year,” Wacker explained.
St. Mark’s will continue to maintain the school building. It will not be used for classes after this year, but it may be used for activities such as basketball practice.
“We are going to wait and see what the future will bring. We hope it will bring growth,” Wacker commented.
Some possibilities that have been discussed include using the St. Mark’s school building for a pre-school or day care. It could also provide space for future expansion if conditions change.
“This move could energize the two schools and congregations. We are assuming the majority of our students will go there (to Zion). We hope they will continue to take advantage of the opportunity for a Christian education,” Wacker said.
He expects a smooth transition for the students.
“The students in the upper grades were already working together on sports,” Wacker said.
He added that the report from the committee is that there may be some name changes for the sports teams, but the name of Zion school will not change.
The Waconia bus will drop New Germany students off at Zion, Wacker said.
Zion principal Debra Kelzer said any changes will be “very minor.”
“We can easily accommodate any number of students that they send us,” Kelzer said.
The school is in the process of planning for the new students. Kelzer was unable to say if this will result in any staff changes.
“We anticipate some restructuring, but that is part of the discussion,” Kelzer said. No decisions have yet been made.
Zion currently has 85 students, and enrollment has been fairly consistent for the past three or four years, according to Kelzer.
A slow decline
Wacker said St. Mark’s has been experiencing a steady decline, losing three or four students each year.
St. Mark’s has a total of 35 students this year, including pre-school. At its peak, the enrollment was about 90 students.
The school currently has students from New Germany, Lester Prairie, and Watertown.
The school cut back one teaching position in the 2006-2007 school year in response to the declining enrollment.
“We are in dire financial shape. We have weathered a few storms, but we are falling short each month. We have not reserves to fall back on,” Wacker said.
He attributes the decline to several factors.
“Our (church) membership is down. The average age is early 60s. We are seeing smaller families and competing with changing priorities,” Wacker said.
Future uncertain for staff
St. Mark’s currently employs three full-time teachers, one part-time preschool teacher, and one part-time grammar teacher.
The preschool teacher, Connie Stahlke, has taught at the school since 1986, and had already announced that she plans to retire after this school year. The grammar teacher has only been at the school a short time, and was hired on a temporary basis.
The three full-time teachers have no prospects at this time, Wacker said.
Wacker came to St. Mark’s two years ago. The other full-time teachers, Becky Aurich and Mary Mielke, have taught at the school on-and-off since before it moved to the current location in 1981.
“All six of my kids went through St. Mark’s, Mielke said. “I never dreamt that my last one wouldn’t finish here,” she added, explaining that next year would have been her youngest daughter’s last year at St. Mark’s, and now, she will be attending Zion.
Mielke, too, holds out hope for growth in the future.
“We added 20 kids in one year once, when several new families moved into the area. It can happen,” Mielke said.
A history of change
St. Mark’s school started soon after the new congregation was formed in 1914.
The congregation built a new school on Jefferson Avenue in 1944.
In 1968, St. Mark’s and St. John’s of Hollywood consolidated their schools. Grades 1-4 went to St. John’s, and grades 5-8 went to St. Mark’s.
The joint churches purchased the current school building on Adams Avenue from Independent School District 110 in 1981 for $252,345.
St. Mark’s and St. John’s parted ways in 2002, Wacker said.
The end of classes at St. Mark’s will bring about changes, but Wacker remains optimistic.
“We are trying to look at this in a positive light. We are blessed to have been able to offer Christian education since 1915, and this congregation will continue to support this at Zion, and will still be involved,” Wacker commented.