Finances threaten boarding school

Lower enrollment, rising fiscal gap may close Oldfields within 2 years

November 28, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,sun reporter

The 140-year-old Oldfields School could be forced to close in less than two years if officials are unable to raise at least an additional $1 million annually, according to a recent letter seeking financial support from graduates and families.

"We have come to a crossroad in Oldfields' history," Dede Alexandre LeComte, head of the school's trustee board and a 1972 graduate, wrote in the letter. "If our financial condition remains unaltered, the future of the school after June 2009 is in serious question."

Oldfields, which was founded in 1867, is Maryland's oldest girls' boarding school. Located in Glencoe in northern Baltimore County, the school has more than 160 students in grades eight through 12 from 17 states - mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region - and seven countries, including China, Mexico and Nepal. The school employs 33 full-time teachers and about 40 other staff members.

Annual tuition ranges from $24,100 for day students to $39,100 for seven-day boarders, according to the school's Web site. About two-thirds are boarders, and the rest are day students.

LeComte's letter says "the gap between revenue and expenses is ... widening drastically and quickly," despite a decrease in the school's expenses and the more-than-doubling of its endowment in recent years, to more than $14 million.

The financial crunch results in part from declining enrollment, which is down to 164 now from 186 two years ago, George Swope, head of school, said in an interview yesterday. And, as is the case with most small private schools, Swope said, Oldfields is more dependent on tuition than it wants to be.

"Our greatest strength is also our greatest challenge, and that's our size," Swope said.

He said the school's short-term goal is to generate an additional $1 million in income from interest on its endowment fund and other sources. But the school needs to more than triple its endowment to $50 million for "long-term, future sustainability," he said.

That would allow the school to provide more programs, increase financial aid and maintain the school's 225-acre property, Swope said.

Several meetings, including one that took place last night, have been set up to explain the financial crisis to students' parents. Periodic updates are expected to be posted at the school's Web site, www.oldfieldsschool.org, and LeComte's letter indicates that a "definitive update" will be made by Feb. 1.

Parent Steve Baker, who serves on the school's board of trustees, said yesterday that his daughter Alison, a 15-year-old ninth-grader, enrolled last year after a campus visit convinced them that the small class sizes and frequent one-on-one interaction between teachers and students would be a good fit for her.

"My daughter's experience there has been truly remarkable," said Baker, who also is president of the parent association.

He said he is confident the financial situation can be resolved, but he worries about the prospect of the school closing before his daughter is expected to graduate.

"She has fallen in love with the place," Baker said of Alison, who is a day student. "It has been better than she thought, and she loves the teachers there. She even likes the food."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

Meetings at Oldfields

Alumnae and parents of former students. 7 p.m. tonight. David Niven Theatre.

Alumnae and parents of current and former students. 7 p.m. tomorrow via live video. A link will be provided on the school's Web site, www.oldfieldsschool.org.

Alumnae and parents of current and former students. 1 p.m. Saturday. David Niven Theatre.

[Source: Oldfields School board of trustees]

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