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Debt cripples Roseville’s St. John’s School

Christian campus will cease operations at end of school year
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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St. John's School in Roseville will cease operations at the end of this school year.

The announcement came during a Town Hall meeting April 23. The last day for the private religious school's 195 students will be May 25.

The school is in debt at least $500,000, according to Father Cliff Haggenjos. That includes $70,000 in compensation owed to teachers and staff. St. John's undertook six months of budget cuts, but in the end didn't have resources to meet its ongoing obligations.

"I am deeply saddened by the decision to close St. John's School, but given our current economic constraints it needed to be done," Haggenjos said. "I am going to miss the daily interaction with the children, staff and faculty of the school. They are all wonderful people. I am committed to providing our students with the best possible graduation and celebration of the time they have spent (here)."

The school's debt may impact Roseville City School District, which has been leasing Barbara Chilton Middle School to St. John's.

Robin McCoy and three fellow parents are opening a PayPal account where people can contribute donations to compensate the teachers and staff.

"There's still a lot of love and community at St. John's," McCoy said. "And the parents are wanting to help."

In a Dec. 13 letter to parents, board member Steve Pereira acknowledged the school's financial problems and upcoming teacher layoffs.

"It is clear that St. John's School has a payroll that is almost as large as all of our total monthly income," Pereira wrote. "We are paying our teachers each month but there is very little left to meet all other monthly obligations. Is this the fault of the teachers? Of course it isn't. It is poor management that allowed expenses to mushroom without making adjustments to income."

As the academic year winds down, St. John's parents are grappling to make sense of what happened to shutter their beloved 32-year-old school.

Financial woes

The most alarming sign of trouble came in November with the resignation of Headmaster Father Paul Hancock.

"A Town Hall meeting was held (in November) to let the parents know that there was a gross mismanagement of school funds," said parent Loriann Chaussee.

Teachers were laid off and classes combined. Parents were told that there were no illegal transactions by Hancock, but there was also "no oversight by the Episcopalian Diocese (of Northern California) or the school board," according to Chaussee.

St. John's School was founded in 1980 as a ministry of St. John's Episcopal Church in Roseville. Hancock declined to speak with the Press Tribune, but sent an email with his perspective.

Hancock said the school has always economically struggled, lacking the major benefactors of other independent schools. The 2007-08 year was especially difficult as enrollment declined and many families weren't able to meet tuition obligations, according to Hancock.

In fall 2008, the school moved from Main Street to Barbara Chilton Middle School, which it leases from Roseville City School District. Hancock said this move led to increased enrollment, but not enough to erase St. John's financial woes.

St. John's had planned to construct a campus when Roseville City School District opened Chilton Middle School in fall 2012. But in early 2011, it became clear St. John's wouldn't be able to build a campus, Hancock wrote.

Attempts to secure another long-term lease were unsuccessful, which led to declining enrollment, according to Hancock. Unsatisfied with the board's response to a revised financial plan he prepared, Hancock resigned.

"Certainly, I will assume responsibility for tactical decisions that were made where I had input to the board's decision-making process," Hancock wrote. "Also, I could have made the decision to lay-off teachers as school started last fall or even in the first few weeks of school. I judged that would have caused more panic, additional withdrawals and an even worse financial situation."

The school launched an effort to raise money to build a campus on land it owns behind St. John's Episcopal Church.

A March 31 letter to parents from board President Keith Diederich stated that 123 students had committed to attending St. John's in the fall and parents had pledged $29,850 toward costs of constructing a new campus. Board members personally pledged another $25,000.

Less than a month later, on April 23, parents were told the school didn't have resources to build the campus.

Brad Des Jardin of DesCor Builders confirmed his company was in discussions with St. John's "to provide services to build the project. But the timeline became too challenging to overcome."

DesCor was informed that St. John's was unable to proceed with the project.

Chaussee said she is frustrated that the Episcopalian Diocese hasn't stepped in to help save the school.

Father had problems

Parents are also expressing concern over Hancock's past. He resigned from his previous headmaster job at Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge, La., during a scandal involving $102,000. An audit revealed financial irregularities, according to articles in 2003 in the Baton Rouge Advocate.

A 2006 letter to St. John's parents from then-school board President Wendy Gray addresses the scandal, stating that Hancock resigned in the "midst of a political firestorm fueled by the fact that he had been paid advances on his salary. Those advances were paid in full by Fr. Hancock and no charges were filed against him."

Gray said the board investigated his background before hiring him.

"Fr. Hancock has acknowledged to both us and his former employer that his acceptance of payroll advances, though not illegal, was unwise," Gray wrote.

Hancock now works at Grace Episcopal Church in Wheatland.

District's legal action

Roseville City School District and St. John's entered into an agreement in 2010 for the lease of Chilton Middle School for two years. St. John's was to pay the district $170,000, plus utilities and other related costs, said district Superintendent Richard Pierucci.

"The agreement was breached by (St. John's) failure to adhere to this arrangement," Pierucci said. "District representatives have met with St. John's representatives numerous times over the last few months in an effort to reach a resolution, to no avail."

The district sent a final demand letter to St. John's, the church and the Episcopal Diocese on March 27, but has received no response.

"At this point, the district has no choice but to initiate legal action to remedy the breach of contract and collect the debt owed to the district," Pierucci said.

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.