BARABOO — Following a meeting last Sunday in which male members of a Baraboo Lutheran church voted narrowly to fire the church school principal, some parents are planning to remove their children from the school — even as the principal himself urges families to stand by the church.
Media coverage of the decision, following accusations by church leadership that John Hartwig had distributed materials questioning Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod doctrine about women’s role in the church, has focused in part on the church’s decision to exclude women from both speaking and voting at the meeting.
That decision, and the doctrine on which it was based, is one of the main reasons parent Jennifer Hopper said she has enrolled her daughter Kyla, a second-grader who has attended St. John’s Lutheran Church since kindergarten, in the Baraboo School District.
“If they didn’t want our opinion on our child’s education ... then they didn’t need our money either,” Hopper said. “She’ll be starting at North Freedom as soon as spring break is over.”
Hopper said as nonmembers of St. John’s, she and her husband considered leaving the school after Kyla finished kindergarten until Hartwig assured them he would help them work through any problems they might have.
“We had a really good rapport with him,” she said. “He knows the names of all the kids in that school, he’s very hands on and very involved in everything that goes on.
“That was important. There are lots of schools that don’t have that.”
But Hartwig, principal since summer of 2003, is urging parents and church members to stay where they are.
“St. John’s Lutheran Church and school teach sound doctrine based on God’s inerrant word,” he said. “I love the church and school, its teachers, the parents, the children, and St. John’s members.”
The Baraboo School District keeps track of which school a new student comes from, in order to obtain academic records. Since the meeting last week, District Administrator Crystal Ritzenthaler said, only Hopper had registered into the district from St. John’s.
However, she said, she expected more new registrations later this spring and into the summer.
“We will be able to accommodate any students who wish to attend the public elementary schools next year,” she said.
Several parents besides Hopper have also said Hartwig’s presence was crucial to their decision to enroll in St. John’s in the first place.
Angie Nichols-Philipp said without Hartwig, her daughter would not remain in the school.
“If Mr. Hartwig is not at St. John’s, she will not go there,” Nichols-Philipp said.
And Karla Uptagraw said she would remove her fourth-grade son, Kolin, as soon as she knew which Baraboo school she’d be living closest to next year, though she would give him the option to return after a year in public school.
“I think there have been issues for a while and this is how the church crucified (Hartwig),” she said. “They knew people really supported him.
Uptagraw, who as a divorced woman had no one to speak for her at the March 21 meeting, said she also would leave the church itself, which she joined in 2005 when Kolin began at the school.
“I will not set foot in the church again,” she said. “I made the sacrifice for my son because I thought this would be a better route for him. I made a commitment, (the church) turned my commitment on me.”
Hartwig’s daughter, Emily, criticized the focus on women’s rights by media outlets reporting on the story.
“That’s not what this is about, at all,” she said. “It’s about how church leaders ... mishandled the entire situation.”
She said the church leadership had repeatedly altered procedure to skew votes in favor of terminating Hartwig, including wording the vote so unclearly that several members, she said, had accidentally voted “yes” for his removal.
Furthermore, she said, the 76-74 vote against her father was more votes than the number of registered voters present.
“I’m not asking for the women’s vote in church,” she said. “But I am asking for justice.”
John Fricke, the lead pastor at St. John’s, said Sunday he was never given the final numbers, just that “it was close.”
“All I can say is, some questions have been raised,” Fricke said. “At this point that vote would be final.”
While he said the church leadership was uncomfortable discussing doctrine in a public forum, he defended the controversial procedural choices as an expression of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran synod’s doctrine.
“We’re happy to affirm the Biblical principle of loving male headship in the home and in the church,” he said. “The practice that we have is one expression of that principle.”
Hartwig said he felt “no bitterness or malice” about the church’s decisions regarding his position, and his wife, Amy, would continue to teach at the school.