43-year-old Santa Rosa Christian School to close at end of school year

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Santa Rosa Christian School will close at the end of the school year, a victim of declining enrollment and ongoing financial struggles.

Administrators of the 43-year-old school alerted parents on Wednesday evening via email and letters home, said principal Tor Benestad.

"There were big financial challenges the last two years and we're just doing everything we can to keep the school going and have had some great, generous people step up and donated help to get us this far," he said.

"As we were looking at the next school year, looking at the number of students and the economy in the county and just the expenses of the school, we realized that the next school year is not something we can do with the quality of programs" parents expect, he said.

The school, which moved to classrooms on the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts campus three years ago, is the second private school to announce its closure in the past few months, joining 130-year-old Ursuline High School.

"We are open to God coming in a mighty way and keeping the school alive," Benestad said. "This is a decision that has come through a lot of prayer and meeting together."

The school is not affiliated with a particular church and is parent-owned, Benestad said.

Troubles began three years ago with the sale of the school's former property on South Wright Road, Benestad said.

Santa Rosa Christian and eventual buyer Wright School District sparred over the school district's attempt to block the school from rezoning the 9.5-acre property prior to the sale.

Rezoning would have made the value — and subsequently the sale price — skyrocket, so the district asked the city to block the move. The district eventually dropped its objections and purchased the land for $8.4 million.

That sale price was less than the $10 million Santa Rosa Christian had hoped to get from a developer who backed out when the real estate market cooled.

At the time of the move to the Wells Fargo Center, Santa Rosa Christian had 265 students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Current enrollment is 198 and Benestad said he expected that number to drop anywhere from 20 to 30 students next fall.

"The death spiral for us was the economy and the fact that we just couldn't attract enough paying students to hit our critical mass to be on sound financial footing," said school board president Lawrence Lehr.

Lehr said the school has relied on large donations to balance the books for years.

Tuition ranges from $5,000 to $12,000 per year and between 30 and 40 percent of the student body receives financial assistance — a number that was on the rise, according to Benestad.

"We have a number of families who have lost jobs, been laid off, reduced wages," he said.

For Lehr, who has sent five children through the school, including a son who is currently a high school junior, this week's announcement was difficult.

"It's hard, it's difficult. We don't know what we are going to do yet, this is all too new," he said.

Both Benestad and Lehr said supporters are still seeking ways to keep the school operating, although likely in a much different form.

"That we'll find a way to make this a resurrection rather than just a death — that is my personal hope," Lehr said.

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