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Numbers crunch: Principal, two teachers laid off at Heartland Christian Academy

A remorseful but straightforward Mark Claussen, chairman of the Heartland Christian Academy's board of education, told parents and students Thursday their principal will be leaving.

There are 14 fewer students this year at Heartland. For the small, rural private school of roughly 50 students, the significant drop in enrollment was enough to cause the layoff of three staff members.

Principal Robert (Bob) Roach, and teachers Cheryl Armstrong and Dan Bera, were let go by the board this week. There simply is not enough money in the budget to pay them, Claussen said.

Roach, originally from Duluth, had been principal of the school for five years. He and his wife, Laraine, who have a blended family of seven grown children, moved from Florida to the area in August 2005.

Before coming to Heartland, Roach had worked in a variety of fields, including as a teacher, a principal, an ordained Presbyterian minister and a viral researcher for the University of Minnesota, where he also received his bachelor's degree in chemistry. He received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Reformed Theological Seminary in Oviedo, Fla.

According to Claussen, Roach will continue to serve as principal of Heartland for 30 days until his position is officially terminated. Eventually, one of the existing faculty members will also serve as interim principal.

"(Roach) is going to set us up as best as he can," Claussen said. "I know he's going to work very hard to do that. I also know he'll be available when I need some advice."

Claussen added that until an interim principal is assigned, each of the faculty members will handle assigned administrative tasks.

Heartland, which houses students in kindergarten through eighth grade, offers parents and children a nondenominational, Bible-based, small-class educational alternative. The school has become a viable part of the Bemidji community, with participation in parades and booths at the Beltrami County Fair.

"We are committed to a balanced budget," Claussen said. "That's not negotiable. We're not going to pass a budget onto you that has a 20- or 30-year deficit with no way to make it up. That would kill the school very quickly. So, as a result of that, as of this last week, we decided to consolidate some classes."

Only one pre-kindergarten child had signed up as of Thursday, so Armstrong's contract was not renewed. Because only one student in the third- or fourth-grade section had enrolled, the board decided to add the student to another grade section, which meant Bera would have no class to teach.

"I cannot tell you how difficult that decision was," Claussen said, referring to the teacher layoffs. "It's hard for us to make those decisions, but we feel really confident that was the right decision for the school."

Most of Heartland's revenue comes from tuition (75 percent). The rest comes from fundraising efforts, gifts, donations and volunteer support. According to Claussen, the school's tuition had increased this year to keep up with the rise in cost of living. He said tough economic times and fewer students caused the board to decide on cuts.

"Last year we graduated a large class," Claussen said. "Also, some families, for financial reasons, couldn't swing the cost of the tuition. For others, one of the parents lost a job and could no longer afford to send their kids here anymore. It's been very emotional, but we understand their reasons and hope this will be just a temporary thing."

In talking about future options to increase funding, Claussen said this year, Heartland will offer specific classes this year to homeschooled families, such as fitness and nutrition, fine arts and music, science and math, and Christian discipleship.

"We're very thankful for the families who are still here and supportive of the school," Claussen said. "I'm extremely grateful for the outside support of churches and individual donors who have helped."

Claussen encouraged parents attending orientation night to volunteer more hours during the school year. Last year, he said, families volunteered more than 800 hours.

"To run a school like this takes lots of volunteer hours. If we hired somebody to do all the hours necessary we'd all be paying $20,000 a year for tuition. In order to keep the costs down, one of the ways we do that is parent participation in volunteering," Claussen said.

Before Claussen ended his talk in front of parents and students at the orientation, he closed with a prayer, asking God to send more students, more money and support.