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Rincon Valley Christian School announces closure after nearly 50 years

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Rincon Valley Christian School will close its doors after nearly 50 years in east Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa Bible Church board members announced late last week the private school they oversee will close in May. The news came as a surprise to teachers and parents, who just days earlier received a letter from the school highlighting a balanced budget.

Church and school officials said the campus has been wrestling with declining enrollment, and it can no longer rely on the church and foreign students to boost revenue and balance the budget. The 2017 fires also exacerbated the problem after nearly 70 families in the church community lost homes, said Chris Bauer, the lead pastor.

He said the school has struggled to attract students over the years, in part to increasing tuition costs, which they had to raise because of declining enrollment.

Many parents, alumni and former teachers took to social media to express their frustrations, calling the decision to shut down the school abrupt. They also raised questions about why the church board did not seek donations before concluding the preschool- to 12th-grade campus was no longer viable.

Kelly Devries has five students enrolled at Rincon Valley, including two children in its satellite program, an option for those who want to home-school.

“People were optimistic about the school’s future,” she said. “Maybe we were naive, but we didn’t think it was going to happen.”

Students also were shocked and saddened by the announcement.

“This school is a safe place with no violence,” said sophomore Amanda Harrison, 16.

She said attending a school with strong Christian values is important to her. “I heard there is a Christian club at Santa Rosa High School, so I may try to get placed there,” she said.

Families are working to secure placements for their children at other schools for next fall. Teachers also are searching for jobs.

The school opened 49 years ago. However, it started seeing enrollment decline a decade ago and has since struggled to support itself financially, said Steve Peters, who heads the school. In a report, the school stated its student population dropped from 500 to 250 students over the past decade.

Bauer said he and board members looked at how much money they would need to not just save the school but to provide students and staff with the necessary resources moving forward. The numbers were staggering, he said.

“It was not just hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring the school to the level of quality necessary, we were looking at millions of dollars,” Bauer said. “It became untenable for us to think we could have raised that kind of money because there was no guarantee.”

The school has relied mainly on tuition money to stay afloat, as well as financial support from the Santa Rosa Bible Church. The church’s general fund absorbed in the past decade $1 million in shortfalls from the school, Bauer said.

“The school is a ministry of SRBC. We have had to bring funds from the church to underwrite the losses, and we were prepared to keep doing that …,” he said. “But now we have come to a place where that just isn’t sustainable anymore.”

Peters said he cut at the beginning of the school year 20 positions, or about half his staff, to trim $500,000 from the budget.

Meanwhile, tuition rates have steadily increased, topping out at $12,000 a year for high school students, he said. Tuition costs $11,000 for junior high students and $9,000 for elementary.

“With how expensive it is to live in the area, coupled with the rising housing rates after the fires, a lot of community members cannot afford that even with our tuition assistance,” Bauer said.

Darren Nelson, 30, has been teaching at Rincon Valley for four years.

“It has been really hard coping with the closure, my feelings go up and down over it,” he said. “It is mostly heartbreaking for the kids who have to go through this.”

Tobi Cunningham, 16, was a preschooler when she first attended Rincon Valley. She said she gets along with her teachers, who really care about the students. She said she will wait to see what schools her closest friends pick before she makes a decision on where to go next year.

Fifth-grade teacher Martha Hazelrigg said the hardest part so far has been seeing students coming to class late because they were out touring other schools.

“That’s when it really hits me that this is a reality,” said Hazelrigg, who has been teaching at Christian schools most of her life. “I know the students have to start doing that, but still, it is heartbreaking to know this is all ending.”

Bauer said the process that led to the decision to close the school could have been more transparent, but it was not made lightly.

“My three adult children are all graduates of the school, and on the board we have alumni,” Bauer said.

Peters moved his family from Iowa last summer to take the job as head of the school. He, too, will not have a job come May.

“I am not sure what God has in store for me, but He has been good to me so far,” Peters said. “We are just praying like everyone else.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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