The Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, in a special constituency session today, voted to give Mt. Vernon Academy until March 10 to come up with $3 million or begin taking steps necessary to cease operations.
After the meeting, Ohio Conference president Ron Halverson, Jr. issued a statement calling the decision “by no means easy,” and saying that the 340 delegates in attendance “courageously and prayerfully voted to accept the December 2, 2014, recommendation of the Ohio Conference Executive Committee.”
Mt. Vernon Academy, the oldest boarding academy in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, traces its roots back to an 1893 message from Ellen White:
Let the building be converted into a seminary to educate our youth in the place of enlarging the college at Battle Creek. I have been shown that there should…be located, school buildings in Ohio which would give character to the work” (Ellen G. White letter K35).
For Ohio Conference pastor Loren Seibold, Ellen White’s statement raised the stakes significantly. In a December column entitled The Boarding Academy Crisis, Seibold wrote,
Many of you have been at these crisis constituency meetings, and you know how they go. The brethren explain the situation, which amounts to, “We don’t have enough paying students to keep this school open.” People queue up at the microphones to say, “You’ve got to keep it open, Ellen White said we should”; or, “My great grandfather graduated here and you can’t close it now”; or, “Adventist youthdom will completely crumble without it; or, we’ve invested too much in the buildings to let them go unused.”
Constituents today allowed financial considerations to supercede what Ellen White was shown, perhaps part of the reason President Halverson called the decision courageous.
Serious talk of shuttering the school began on October 22, 2014, the day after the SVA Board of Trustees and alumni association heard detailed reports on the school’s finances. The news was not good. Halverson wrote on the conference website, “Many of you reading this may be shocked to learn the situation is worse than you realized. I was as well.”
Details emerged of serious mismanagement. Halverson noted that the academy was unable to make payroll in August. The school’s financial reports did not accurately portray the financial situation, giving the impression of a more favorable asset balance than was warranted, while minimizing liabilities. The school went through five business managers in six years. The school prematurely spent tuition and fees from international students to help cover immediate operating expenses, creating a shortfall for the start of this school year. The school had no working capital, and had significant debt.
The October meeting of trustees and alumni yielded two important outcomes:
First, the Ohio Conference applied for and received a loan from the Columbia Union Conference to help cover the school’s immediate financial needs. The loan served as a stopgap measure with oversight from the Ohio Conference treasury department. The MVA Alumni Association agreed to pay monthly interest on the loan.
The second outcome was the formation of a Blue Ribbon Committee comprised of Seth Bardu (Columbia Union Treasurer), Ham Canosa (Columbia Union Vice President for Education), four Ohio Conference Executive Committee members (including two MVA alumni), two Mount Vernon Academy trustees, and Vince Waln (chair of the Ohio Conference Finance Committee). The committee was tasked with making the school financially stable and self-supporting in the 21st century.
On December 1, MVA Board of Trustees voted a recommendation to the Ohio Conference Executive Committee including raising $1.5M by February 15, 2015 for short-term expense, having six months (approximately $1.5M) of working capital in place by April 1, 2015, and exploring the sale of assets.
The following day, the conference Executive Committee voted to recommend to the January 11 constituency session approving the board’s recommendations with the added stipulation that “any sale of real estate assets be restricted to debt reduction and capital improvements, not current operations.”
By a vote of 257 to 82 against, constituents overwhelmingly approved the Executive Committee’s recommendations, giving Mt. Vernon two months to raise $3 million dollars.
Meanwhile, MVA principal Daniel Kittle took to social media to appeal for help. Kittle reposted on his SVA Facebook page a post he originally shared in 2011 while he was the principal at Fresno Adventist Academy in Central California. Fresno had suffered its own financial difficulties at that time. Kittle wrote,
“Today we must not shut our eyes to a matter of such great importance.” - the importance of the role that Adventist Education plays in forming the life of a child and the resulting blessings to our churches and to the kingdom of God. We must find a way to not only maintain but to grow our presence in this vital ministry. Now is the moment of legacy! Now is our time to stand! Now is our chance to build the story of our faith and the capacity of our churches and our school to reach this generation for God. This is not the time of demise! This is not the time that we curse the day in which we live! This is not the day that we struggle with broken relationships! This is not the day we leave this place filled with murmuring and complaint! [...] This is our day to unite! This is our day to do something! This is the day that we choose to sacrifice our pride - sacrifice our selfishness - sacrifice our bitterness and choose to build a spiritual asset for our children. This is the day we choose to make the best spiritual decision we can for our children.
Kittle also posted a link to a student-led initiative on YouTube called #DOSOMETHING MVA. Junior Kayla Davis created the campaign asking Ohio Conference members to intervene on behalf of the school. Speaking directly to viewers, senior Alyssa Thompson said that MVA was there for her when her father died last summer.
“Some of you have heard that our school is closing,” Thompson said. “That’s not true. We’re still here. We’re still fighting.” Thompson asked viewers not to close their eyes to the school.
The appeals students made in the video campaign are passionate and compelling, but will their efforts be too little, too late?
Vince Waln, chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee told delegates that this year there are 85 students enrolled at Mt. Vernon, 36 from Ohio. It costs $3M to run the school annually, and if the school does raise the money needed by March, the questions that have haunted the school will be asked again the following year.
"We need to ask ourselves, what is our mission?" Waln said. "Significant measures must be taken in order to secure MVA for the long term.
Title image courtesy Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists on Facebook.
Jared Wright is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6558