St. John’s Military School, a pillar of north Salina since 1887, is closing at the end of the academic year, officials announced Wednesday afternoon.

In a press release from the school, reasons cited were low enrollment, higher costs, and negative publicity that contributed to both.

The tradition-rich school for boys that opened 29 years after Salina’s founding, and 26 years after Kansas statehood, is ending its story after 131 years. The school will operate through May 11.

“With heavy hearts,” the SJMS Board of Trustees confirmed the closing, as did Col. William Clark, school president. A letter signed by him and Randy Hoppe, of Sharpsburg, Ga., the trustees board chairman, was sent Wednesday to cadets’ parents, alumni, and friends of SJMS.

“It’s just very sad,” said Hoppe, who graduated St. John’s in 1980. His younger brother, Terrance Hoppe, of LaGrange, Ga., is a member of the class of 1981.

“St. John’s has done a lot of good for a lot of young men, including myself,” Randy Hoppe said. “I was failing in high school and my parents decided to send me to St. John’s. Everything I did was improved.”

In one year at St. John’s, he rose from cadet to cadet captain. As an adult, Hoppe reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and today manages his family’s business, National Management Resources Corp. in LaGrange. He’s in his third year on the St. John’s Board of Trustees, and his first year as chairman.

“It’s a pretty sad thing for my parents,” Randy Hoppe said. His father, Frederick Daniel Hoppe Jr., of Sharpsburg, Ga. died in November. He was an SJMS board member from the 1980s and 1990s. Randy Hoppe said his father was aware of the “financial difficulties” at the school.

St. John’s roughly 100 faculty and staff were informed at the same time as some 136 cadets after lunch Wednesday. Shortly after the internal notifications, information was released to media across several states. Most of St. John’s students come from outside of Kansas. The largest state contributor is from Colorado, and other cadets hail from spots around the globe.

 

'No longer viable'

After a number of agonizing board meetings, the final decision was confirmed by the board Jan. 31, Clark said. It was the second straight gathering where board members “came to the conclusion we’re no longer viable, no longer solvent,” the colonel said.

He added that the decision is both final, “and hard to accept.”

“This is a significant emotional event for the St. John’s family,” Clark said. “When you’re faced with a tough situation, the mood becomes focused and then you start to realize the gravity of the situation, and you become reflective, forlorn and subdued.”

Clark’s service to St. John’s will end after roughly two years as president.

“Something I cherish, I love, will be no more,” he said.

The release read that “considerable research, thought, contemplation, discussion and prayer has factored into this arduous decision.”

“These are men who were part of an institution for many years, and they were emotional,” Clark said of the board members.

“For 131 years, we’ve been shaping the lives of young men who went on to become loving husbands and fathers, and made significant contributions to our world,” said the retired U.S. Army colonel.

Clark added that those same efforts made definite impacts on the cadets’ families. Those students grew to become productive and honorable adults, he said, and some continued into military service.

Many have remained “tethered” to SJMS throughout their adult lives, Clark said.

A “celebration of its rich history" is planned during Commencement Weekend.

“Until that time, the education and leadership opportunities offered to cadets will remain robust, and daily routines will be maintained,” an SJMS letter to parents reads. “For over 131 years, St. John’s has been a school dedicated to helping young men grow spiritually, morally, intellectually, and physically, in a safe environment.”

“ … the landscape of education has changed dramatically, resulting in lower enrollment and unattainable higher costs of operations,” according to the release. “This combined with St. John’s having unfairly become a target for legal cases and negatively biased and misleading portrayals by some media outlets, has created an insurmountable situation that school leaders have been unable to overcome.”

 

Enrollment drop

Enrollment that has maxed out at 235 cadets — the on-campus capacity — has dropped below 140 a few times in the past decade, forcing trustees to pull from an endowment that was nearing $15 million in the 2008-09 school year.

The account has since dwindled nearly 93 percent. St. John’s enrollment this school year is 165. In the 2010-2011 school year, the school’s enrollment was 282; falling to 279 in 2011-2012. The number of cadets on campus differs from the number enrolled. They come and go, for several reasons throughout the school year, a school official said.

The letter to parents reads that many “strategies” were tried to grow enrollment, including stepping up marketing and recruitment, encouraging cadet referrals, tuition discounts, summer camps, and changes to school operations “to gain efficiencies,” but it wasn’t enough. Annual tuition is $34,100.

“The school has only remained open due to the generosity of a few key donors and by drawing upon the school’s endowment fund to supplement the operational budget,” according to the letter. “Unfortunately, the endowment fund is no longer a viable option, as these funds have been expended.”

Trustees chose to announce the closing now, allowing families and staff at St. John’s time to make alternative plans for the next school year, and to allow families to “formulate their questions and concerns,” according to the letter.

The school has pledged to offer as much assistance as possible to help families place sons in other schools, and assist staff and faculty in finding other jobs.

St. John’s will provide more information as it becomes available.

Clark said school officials and cadets are planning a proper sendoff, “so people can appreciate what they’ve been a part of. The brotherhood is not going away.”

Meanwhile, school leaders “are trying to be as sensitive to the family as possible,” he said, referring to the parents, alumni, faculty and staff.