Friday, December 30, 2016

Church considering options in wake of alleged embezzlement

  First came the Great Recession, then fewer people started showing up for regular Sunday services.

What followed in the wake is what some members of St. Paul Lutheran Church & School have likened to a physical injury -- a wound, of sorts. The church's beloved school secretary, Lynn M. Warner, is accused of stealing more than $300,000 from school coffers in a span of about nine years.

With fewer dollars in the collection baskets, and the loss of those reportedly pilfered funds, church leaders and parishioners now are facing a tough decision: What to do with their grade school as the money runs out.

"The only reason we're still standing is we had a $1.1 million foundation. We borrowed against that," the Rev. David Thies said. "We're in the process, out of necessity, to look at how do we re-birth the school."

Because something has to change, he said. No decisions have been made, but various suggestions are being considered.

While some grade levels are combined for certain subjects, like social sciences and history, they might have to combine grades further and employ one-quarter of the staff. Or they might opt to switch to a different curriculum that is better-suited to combined grade-level learning, he said, such as done by some families who home-school their children.

Decisions also might need to be made about whether St. Paul's will remain a two-church-building congregation. The church's hub is at 600 N. Horsman St. and the northwest site is at 4881 Kilburn Ave.

Currently, there are no plans to close the school, said Thies, who teaches Latin, but "it was contemplated that the school may have to end."

"I am hopeful that we can have school next year. However, because of what has happened to us in the removal of these funds, it will look vastly different in nature than we have had, or may be impossible all together without some other rescue stepping forth," he said.

Legal troubles

A Winnebago County grand jury in September indicted Warner, 34, of the 1400 block of Harlem Boulevard in Rockford, in connection with the thefts from the parochial school. She's facing four counts of theft and remains free after posting $2,500 bail.

Warner pleaded not guilty to the felony charges during her arraignment Thursday in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court.

Multiple messages have been left for Warner, and for each of her two Chicago-based defense attorneys, Louis J. Meyer and Daniel Kiss, but none have returned calls seeking comment.

Warner is due back in court in the criminal case Tuesday.

St. Paul's sued Warner in May, alleging she stole money from its silent auction account, school tuition and band tuition accounts, registration account, band materials account and faculty fund, according to the lawsuit. Church leaders contend that Warner created two sets of records to prevent them from discovering what was occurring and that some of these were password protected.

Her next court date for the church's lawsuit is Jan. 25.

Declining enrollment

Currently, 72 children attend the church's school spanning preschool through eighth grades, Thies said. The west side school is racially diverse - about 50-50 black and white.

Enrollment figures once were much heftier. In the 1950s and 1960s, 400 children attended the school, at 811 Locust St. Enrollment took a hit in the 1970s and has struggled ever since, except for a couple of years when tuition was reduced.

Thies, a former lawyer who grew up in Alabama, said "2008 hit and the whole model went out the window for churches and everybody's been in massive decline since." The situation was "just exacerbated for St. Paul's" by the theft of school funds, he said.

"If we weren't so blessed in the prior years (with the $1.1 million foundation), we would have been wiped out," he said.

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