BARNESVILLE — Email and mail boxes of alumni and community supporters of the Olney Friends School recently revealed news of a frightening prospect. This school year may be the 180-year-old institution’s last. Established in Mount Pleasant in 1837, the school relocated to its current location off Sandy Ridge Road in 1876.
The "Emergency Appeal – our class of 2019 needs YOUR help now!" letter and email plea dated was co-signed by Micha Brownstein and Cynthia Walker, interim co-heads of school, on behalf of the students, staff and board of trustees. The duo who have led Olney management since May 28, 2017.
Simply put, the school management has issued a plea to raise $250,000 by March 31 or the school will not open in September for the 2018-2019 school year.
"To help ensure Olney's future, we are working with expert consultants to structure a financially sustainable school," the school heads share.
"But, frankly, Olney needs stronger donor support now to survive. To open for the 2018-2019 school year, we must raise $250,000 by March 31, 2018. This is in addition to the $250,000 annual fund goal set for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018
The school, responsible for 26 jobs according to the most recent edition of the school’s alumni newsletter, Olney Current, is an integral and important part of the economy of Barnesville, Belmont County and eastern Ohio.
The current board of trustees are led by Dorothy Stratton Churchwell (’59) of Madison, WI and Melinda Gamble Kramer (’64) of Gaithersburg, MD. Other trustees are Paul Dockery (’63) of Charlotte, NC; Lars Etzkorn (’83) of Washington, DC; Frank Fisher of Philadelphia, PA; Samuel Leath (’06) of Columbus, OH; Pat McCune of Ann Arbor, MI; Elizabeth Sikkenga (x’80) of Ann Arbor, MI, and Gwen Torry-Owens (’78) of Metuchen, NJ.
The plea notes, "the board of trustees, and those who live and work at Olney, are substantially increasing our own giving."
This is not the first time in recent memory the future of Olney has been in question.
"In 1998 Ohio Yearly Meeting decided to end its governance of the school due to low enrollment and increasing financial burden. A group of individuals, mostly Olney Friends School alumni concerned for the continuance of the school, formed a new corporation: Friends of Olney, Inc. After much deliberation Ohio Yearly Meeting agreed to turn over the management of the school to this group and negotiated a lease for the use of the school property, about 350 acres, including the farm. When the transition was completed, a board of trustees began operating the institution as an independent Quaker school no longer under the care of a Friends Meeting," the school’s website reveals.
The message issued by the school’s leadership follows:
Dear alumni and friends,
Olney Friends School is at risk. We will finish the current school year, but without increasing donations will be unable to open in Fall 2018, and may be forced to lay down the school. What happens in the next few months will define Olney's future. Your gift can make the difference.
How we got here
The financial shortfall is the result of many years when revenue did not meet expenses, despite efforts by each administration since the 1990's to cut costs and raise revenue. Unfortunately, for the last several years the school has been forced to balance its budget by spending reserves and borrowing against the endowment. On the expense side, Olney is lean; expenses have been cut, sometimes to the bone. Faculty and staff salaries are far below market, maintenance has been deferred, and employee health insurance benefits were discontinued in 2015 to reduce costs.
What it takes to run the school
Private schools are funded principally by tuition revenue and donated funds. When students do not pay full tuition, the funds must be raised from elsewhere. According to the National Association of Independent Schools, about 35% of students at top US boarding schools receive financial aid. Because we value our diverse student body, approximately 90% of Olney students receive substantial financial aid. Other sources are not filling the gap.
Tuition revenue funds approximately half of Olney's yearly budget ($1.3 million in fiscal year 2018), while 10% of the budget comes from endowment income and funding from charitable foundations. Consequently, 40% of the budget must be raised from donations. Olney is fortunate to have dedicated donors who have helped us meet annual fund challenges and other needs. We are especially grateful for their on-going support. However, a significant gap remains.
Our last major capital campaign, mounted a decade ago, was hit hard by the recession; giving was low, many pledges could not be fulfilled, and the campaign fell far short of its goal. In 2013, the board of trustees chose not to lease mineral rights for natural gas frackingof school property, keeping Olney's tradition and testimony of environmental stewardship and protecting its planned organic certification. With those potential revenues lost, our mission needs your help to survive.
Why it matters
Our 12 seniors will graduate at the end of this school year. Meanwhile, a class of 21 juniors awaits their senior year. Like Gudi from Costa Rica (one of three with Olney-alumni older siblings), each one has invested hard work and dreams towards an Olney diploma. Our school has a 180-year history of educating young people of many nationalities, faiths, ethnicities, and economic circumstances, and a long tradition of preparing those graduates for lives of important service -- men and women who drove ambulances rather than bear arms in three wars, who led refugee programs, who worked for peace and social justice wherever they went. Olneyites joined freedom rides and voter registration drives, marched against racial segregation and for women's rights, and took the world's children into their hearts and homes. Olney is a place where promising young people find their purpose and learn to build a strong foundation for lives of service and character.
Member of the greater Barnesville community are also encouraged to contribute. Checks may be sent to Olney Friends School (with note "define the future") at 61830Sandy Ridge Road, Barnesville, OH 43713) or donate securely online at www.olneyfriends.org/support-olney (with "define the future" in notes area).