Church steps in to save Christian school in KCK

When teachers at Muncie Christian School learned Sunday that their school would be shut down because of an unmanageable tax debt, they embraced in prayer.

Then they started tweeting and texting. They created a website and they posted on Facebook, all to get out the word that the small private school in Kansas City, Kan., needed more than $140,000 to stay open.

In the end, social media led a man of God in Oklahoma to an Evangelical church in Wyandotte County that came to the school’s rescue.

Praise Chapel Christian Fellowship Church on Friday announced a plan to buy the 55-year-old school near North 67th Street and Leavenworth Road and pay the school’s $144,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service.

Until last week, school officials said, they thought they had a deal with the IRS to keep the school open for at least another year. Then they learned the IRS intended to shut the school down on Aug. 21 if the debt was not paid, said school administrator Mendy Lietzen.

An IRS spokesman said the federal agency cannot comment about specific taxpayers.

Lietzen said the faith-based school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade had failed to make payroll withholding tax payments since 2008.

“Muncie has always struggled financially,” she said. “Many years we ended with a deficit.”

Enrollment had dropped from 190 during fiscal 2000-01 to 96 students in 2010-11, according to federal tax documents.

Lietzen said the school’s finances took a dramatic turn when the economy tanked in the recession of the last four years. “A lot of our families lost jobs, they lost their homes,” she said.

Muncie ended 2009 with unpaid tuition bills adding up to $58,000. “We opened the next year on faith,” Lietzen said.

Teachers sometimes worked without getting paychecks.

“It was never about the money for us; it was about teaching these children,” said Esther Rios, who has taught kindergarten and Spanish at the school for 30 years. “I love these kids. Some of them are the children of former students.”

When faculty gathered at the school Sunday and learned about the closing, “there was complete silence,” Rios said. “The next sound you heard was sniffling. We were devastated. We knew we struggled, but we didn’t know it was this bad.”

She said the teachers refused to give up, though.

Through their website and an electronic networking campaign the school raised more than $6,000 in four days. While supporters were writing on Facebook that they had faith they could raise the money, school officials knew they needed a miracle.

They had no idea that Praise Chapel, just a few miles south in the 5000 block of Parallel Parkway, would come to their aid.

Shannon Watterson, a 2000 graduate of Muncie and now a business owner and church pastor in Oklahoma, saw the school’s plea for help on Facebook Sunday afternoon.

He remembered a conversation he’d had seven years ago with his pastor at Praise Chapel in Kansas City, Kan., while he was working as director of development for Muncie.

Pastor Kelly Lohrke had told him he wanted “to get involved with the school, to help.”

“I called him (Monday) and reminded him of that conversation. He hadn’t heard about the problems. I told him now is a good time.”

Lohrke approached the Praise Chapel board about saving Muncie, which says it is the only Christian-based school in Wyandotte County serving elementary, middle and high school students in one place.

“With all that is going on in this world today, we can’t afford to lose a Christian school that has been in the area for 55 years,” Lohrke said.

“The goal is to buy the school in one lump sum for the tax debt and then rally around it, get involved with its leadership, and make any improvements it needs to help make sure it doesn’t get in this position again.”

Lohrke moved to Kansas City, Kan., 19 years ago and started his church in his living room. The church now has a location in Lee’s Summit and six branch churches, including one in Chicago.

Bailing the school out of debt, Lohrke said, is just the first step. He said Muncie will continue to need financial help to make its payroll and clear other hurdles.

Muncie has been at 3650 N. 67th St. since 1999, when it purchased the site’s two red-brick buildings from the Kansas City, Kan., School District for $25,000.

Parents and students who attended Friday’s announcement in the school gym leaped from their bleacher seats when they heard that their school would stay open. They shouted out Christian chants and sang gospel tunes. Families flocked around Lohrke to thank him.

“It’s outstanding to step up and help out,” said Shawn Castro, whose 5-year-old daughter is enrolled in kindergarten at Muncie for the fall. “That’s what God tells us to do. So for a church to actually practice that example… well, it’s what we all should be doing.”