By STEPHEN SIFF
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
HOWLAND -- The polished corridors and immaculate classrooms and the knots of laughing children hustling toward dismissal hardly betray a school on the edge of demise.
A new computer lab was opened at Word of Life Christian Academy last year. The 20-year-old elementary school began this year with a new principal, hired from California.
And only three years ago, Believers' Christian Fellowship, which helps support the school, finished a $5 million expansion of the building they share, the former Morgandale Elementary School.
Children in middle: The school's closing is the result of a divorce between these longtime partners, tangled by finances, but pushed apart by ambition. As in many divorces, the children are caught in the middle.
"I'm just really disappointed," said Michelle Benich, whose daughter Sarah is in the third grade. "It is an awesome school."
Parents are still deciding where to put their children next year, but school and church officials are determined that the school, which houses kindergarten through sixth grade, will close.
Several parents are considering home-schooling. More are looking into their local school districts, or one of Trumbull County's two other Christian schools.
Vicki Finch of Howland said she knows of one couple who is considering moving to put their children in a better school district. No one said they know for sure right now what they will do.
Came as surprise: "It was such a shock; nobody had planned for it," said Finch, who, like other parents, received a letter announcing the school's closure a few weeks ago.
Her daughter, Brittany, is in the first grade. "None of us were told that this was going to happen," she said.
In a sense, Word of Life Christian Academy was the victim of its partner's success.
In the 16 years since Believers' Christian Church bought the Morgandale school and invited Word of Life Academy to move in, the number of adults attending Sunday services has quadrupled to about 1,200.
Sunday mornings and afternoons, well-dressed men and women, black and white, fill row upon row of gray and pink seats in the new sanctuary, gazing up at a stage adorned with trees and flowers and flanked by two wide-screened televisions.
From the back of the new sanctuary, black-clad crew members with headphones operate three television cameras, including one on a boom.
Televisions in the sanctuary lobbies show a live feed, and audio from the services is even pumped into the restrooms. The church hopes to be on local television by 2003.
Eviction: The church is evicting the 130-pupil school because it wants to transform its classrooms into similarly contemporary worship areas for children.
The nearly 400 children who come to services Wednesday night and Sunday now worship in the school's carpeted gym, where basketball hoops hang over a stage and temporary control booth.
"We feel like we have to have as nice a place for your kids as your adults," Joseph Cameneti, head pastor at Believers' Christian Fellowship and president of Word of Life, said.
Plans are not yet complete, but sanctuaries for children of three different age ranges will be decorated in themes with a richness that is not possible if they have to be converted from other uses several times a week, said Jim Donadio, an executive pastor at the 17-pastor church.
"We need the space," Cameneti said.
Even with the additional classroom space, the church still will need to construct another building at a separate location to house its youth ministries, he said.
"It is a shame; there is no doubt about it," said Cameneti, who took over presidency of the school in 1987, at the request of its founder.
Despite the shared leadership, the two organizations are not one and the same, he said. The school "was not part of the original church vision, so I would say it was not part of us," Cameneti said.
In the years since the two joined, however, Believers and Word of Life became more than just roommates. As well as offering rent-free space, the church covered all maintenance and utilities costs for the building and made up the school's operating deficit at the end of each year.
The church has contributed about $945,000 from its collection plate to the school since 1984. Officials say other churches were reluctant to contribute to the school because they perceived it to be closely linked to Believers' Christian Fellowship, even though the great majority of pupils were members of other churches.
And when the breakup came, church officials were not willing to single-handedly take on the cost of constructing a building or paying $100,000 a year rent for a school they did not consider their own, Cameneti said.
When Jim Shaffer of Bristolville joined the school board two years ago, he was immediately told the church expected to eventually expand into the school's space. He said the board tried to drum up support for combining Word of Life with another Christian school, or to find another church to take it in.
There were hopeful signs from other groups and verbal agreements, but no sense of urgency, he said.
That came in June, when the board was informed this would be the school's last year in the building.
"That's when everything fell apart," he said.
The first time most parents heard about it was in a letter from the school posted the last Friday in January. Earlier that month, Cameneti had told the school board that no options remained but closing down, an enclosed pamphlet says.
"I know they were between a rock and a hard place, but in the end, as a parent, it came as a bomb," said Dan Weber, whose son and daughter are in the third and fifth grades.
"I would have thought that parents would have been part of the process."
School employees found out the same day the letters were put in the mail.
"It is not just a job; it is losing our ministry here," said Fran Clary of Hermitage, Pa., who left another job to begin teaching at Word of Life in December.
"We need the place to survive more than we need the paycheck."