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Paul Stickel, of Mitchell, mops the floor Thursday at Mitchell Christian School in preparation for its annual two-day auction, which started Friday and continues Saturday. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

Onward Christian fundraisers

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Life Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
The Daily Republic
Onward Christian fundraisers
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Hands continued to fly toward the sky.

Bidders were gathered around at Mitchell Christian's annual benefit auction last February, throwing thousands of dollars at one of the most coveted items -- a gavel, which the winning bidder would not even get to take home.

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When the bidding concluded, the sale of the gavel raised nearly $17,000. Every dollar was a donation -- through the mock purchase of the gavel -- to Mitchell Christian School.

"Over the years, they've raised a total of $85,000 doing that," Mitchell Christian School Administrator Joseph Fox said. "The goal was to cross that $100,000 mark. It was one of those God moments."

The sale of the gavel at its annual auction is one of many fundraising methods used at Mitchell Christian, a private, faith-based school for students in preschool through 12th grade.

A large chunk of the school's funding comes from tuition, or costs that families pay for their children to attend classes. At Mitchell Christian, tuition is based on age and the number of children a family enrolls at the school.

That means the higher the enrollment, the more tuition dollars are available to fund the budget.

But enrollment of students in kindergarten through 12th grade at Mitchell Christian this year is at a recent low of 121 students, according to the state Department of Education's fall enrollment tally. That's down 22 students from last year and down 66 students from a recent peak in 2008.

"The downturn relates directly to some families who for many years have been saying maybe we'll be here and maybe we won't," said Fox, adding updated enrollment shows the school is down about 25 students from last year. "What started to happen, one family left and then another said, 'If they're leaving then maybe we will, too.' "

Decreased enrollment put the school about $100,000 behind its annual budget of nearly $1 million heading into the school year, Fox said. That's why this weekend, the Mitchell Christian School 30th Annual Benefit Auction has added importance.

Friday kicked off the two-day auction, which raised about $136,000 for the school last year and has had more than 400 area businesses contribute this year. It continues today at 9 a.m. at the school's gymnasium, and the last items are tentatively scheduled to be auctioned at 3:30. The sale of the gavel begins at 1:30.

Dollars, costs, donors

Todd Tegethoff, Mitchell Christian's development director, has been in charge of running the school's auction for the past seven years.

Wednesday afternoon, Tegethoff was hard at work with other staff and volunteers at the school preparing for the event, which, aside from the gavel, sells other items in live and silent auctions.

"It's huge, not only for the money but for the camaraderie of the school," he said. "We have hundreds of volunteer hours. The main purpose is to raise funds, but it's more than that."

Tegethoff, who has four children attending the school, said the decline in enrollment is a worry, but not a dire concern. His duty is to raise money for the school to keep it from becoming a problem.

"The one thing I always feel, the auction brings out that the Lord will provide," he said.

Tegethoff acknowledged lower enrollments mean it takes more work to raise money to keep the school open and progressing. Whereas public schools receive a specific amount of tax-based funding based on their enrollments, Mitchell Christian has to rely on its tuition and fundraising.

The school charges a flat $200 registration fee per family, and then tuition is based on students' grade level. Tuition for a family's first child ranges from $4,900 to $5,100 annually and decreases for each additional child. Fox said there are tuition reduction agencies that provide grants and aid for private education.

And when tuition dollars aren't enough, Mitchell Christian also benefits from a group of about 10 to 20 people that give anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 annually, Fox said.

Boyd Reimnitz, of Mitchell, has a daughter at Mitchell Christian and said he has "bought many dollars worth of gavel in the past."

"Christian education for our children has been the best investment I've ever made," Reimnitz said.

Just a few months ago, Mitchell Christian conducted its first-ever phone-a-thon to raise money and make a dent in the budget deficit. The event raised about $96,000, which was $16,000 more than was projected in the budget, therefore making a $16,000 dent in the deficit.

The school is also building an endowment fund, to collect money from donors and use the interest to help fund the school's budget.

Fox said the school started the endowment eight years ago and has grown it to about $100,000.

Public districts growing

Heidi Eitemiller taught a variety of classes and age levels at Mitchell Christian for the past 13 years.

While she was teaching at the school last year, all three of her children attended Mitchell Christian. Now that she no longer teaches at the school, all of her kids are enrolled in Mitchell's public school district at L.B. Williams Elementary.

She wants "only the best for Mitchell Christian" and said her leaving "had nothing to do with Mitchell Christian."

"My husband took on a second job as a worship director at church and I can help him with that, so there wouldn't be time for teaching anymore," Eitemiller said. "It was God telling us it was time to make a change. Nothing against Mitchell Christian. We love Mitchell Christian, but it just felt like that was what God was telling us to do, was to make a change right now."

Fox said nearly all of the students who've left Mitchell Christian recently went to the public schools, with the exception of one family who chose homeschooling.

Some of the families, such as the Eitemillers, chose the Mitchell School District. While Mitchell Christian has seen its enrollment drop, the Mitchell School District has increased its enrollment each year since 2008, jumping from 2,457 students in 2007 to 2,710 this fall.

Increased enrollment in public schools has been a trend statewide the past five years, while enrollment in private schools has remained about the same.

The state Department of Education reported there were 122,055 students attending South Dakota's public schools five years ago, and that number jumped to 128,294 during last fall's count. Private schools have hovered between 15,700 and 16,050 students since 2009.

John Paul II -- a private, Mitchell-based elementary school that hosts children in kindergarten through sixth grade -- has seen a fluctuation in enrollment in the past five years, going from 165 students in 2009 up to 174 students in 2010. The school's enrollment has fallen 11 since then.

Like Mitchell Christian, Dakota Christian -- on state Highway 44 west of Corsica -- has seen declining enrollment in recent years, falling from 122 students in 2008 to 102 this year. As recently as 2006, Dakota Christian had 179 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Christian education is a sacrifice because of tuition, and it costs to send your kids to a Christian school," Dakota Christian Administrator Gary Cookson said. "I'm sure money is part of the reason. It's expensive, and with public school you don't have to pay."

Although people who send their children to public schools do not pay tuition, they do help fund schools through their property taxes.

Anyone who owns real estate in the Mitchell School District pays a percentage of their taxes to the district. The owner of a home with a taxable value of $112,000, for example, pays about $1,040 annually in regular property taxes to the school district, plus about $16 for a voter-approved opt-out of the state's property tax limits.

Broader activities, academics

A broader variety of extracurricular activities and academic courses are among the reasons Fox said students have chosen public school districts over Mitchell Christian.

He used the Mitchell School District's show choir as an example, saying at least one student who attended Mitchell Christian a year ago wanted to participate in the extracurricular activity.

"One major factor that it comes down to when it comes to Christian education, and I'm basing this off 20-plus years being in the business, the major factor is commitment," said Fox, who was at Fremont Christian School in Michigan prior to starting with Mitchell Christian in August 2012. "Are people committed to Christian education? Do they have a relationship with it? It's commitment versus commodity.

"There are some people who want to treat Christian schools like a commodity. It's something we buy. Many of those families who left last summer, they were more on the commodity end of the spectrum."

So could Mitchell Christian explore joining forces with the Mitchell School District for extracurricular activities to help keep its own enrollment up? The discussion has occurred, Fox said.

"The most recent place I asked the question to is in band, and the public school denied it," Fox said. "We would have an interest and we've had the discussion more than once at the board level. Mitchell public is really not overly excited, has been our perception about co-oping with us."

The schools already have an agreement that allows Mitchell Christian students to play football on the public school teams, but that's the only sport they share. Mitchell public offers at least four sports that Mitchell Christian does not, including boys' and girls' tennis, gymnastics, competitive cheer and dance, and wrestling.

Mitchell and Mitchell Christian previously played soccer together in a club-level, non-state sanctioned league on a team called Mitchell United. At the end of the 2007 season, Mitchell Christian broke free from Mitchell United and the schools have been separate in the sport since.

Mitchell School District Superintendent Joe Graves said Mitchell Christian has approached the public school district about joining forces for band, but added, "We tend to enter into co-op agreements when it's beneficial for both sides. Where we have sufficient numbers and when co-oping would potentially block out a student of mine, then we don't tend to co-op."

'A level of commitment'

Jesse Tolsma, a 2010 graduate of Mitchell Christian, has positive memories of his school days.

Mitchell Christian educated him from kindergarten through 12th grade. One of the biggest benefits to attending the school, he said, was the small class sizes and personal relationships with teachers.

Some of his best memories came on the basketball court. He was a member of Mitchell Christian's 2007 Class B state runner-up team and had winning seasons each of the three years he started for former head coach Tom Young.

"You want to see your school succeed," he said when discussing the school's declining enrollment. "I know a lot of times it's hard, especially being a small, private school. But it really is a great value to the education you receive and the opportunities it opens up. It's sad to see the numbers drop. I'm sure you always see fluctuation, but you hope to see it come back up and make some resurgence."

Tolsma is a senior at Northwestern College, a faith-based institution in Orange City, Iowa, that competes athletically in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, the same league as Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.

In high school, Tolsma was a first-team all-state selection in his junior and senior years, helping him earn a spot on Northwestern's basketball team.

Fox said Tolsma's time at Mitchell Christian was successful because of Tolsma's commitment to Christian education. Fox asks every family who shows interest in attending Mitchell Christian whether they have that kind of commitment.

"I look each of those students in the eye and ask them if they really want to be here, because I want them to want to be here," Fox said.

That's why Fox believes Mitchell Christian will continue to march on.

He acknowledged enrollment is down, tuition dollars are behind and the budget is a worry.

"Sometimes people, we get a little bit down, especially when people leave us," Fox said. "It hurt when those kids left last summer. The reason it hurt was because they were family. It feels like a divorce, because some of them were here since they were little shavers. You thought they were committed."

But in his short time with the school, Fox has already seen exactly what he believes will keep it alive.

"There's a level of commitment here that is powerful," he said.