Runnels School in Baton Rouge will increase tuition substantially next year for its high school students, and it’s asking parents to renew en masse no later than Jan. 31 or the high school may have to close.

Adding a new $2,000 “advancement fee” just for high schoolers, the overall increase is 42.9 percent. Consequently, the cost of high school enrollment at Runnels will rise from $10,360 a year currently to $14,800 for the 2020-21 school year.

The rest of the school, preschool to eighth grade, is unaffected. Tuition for students in those grades is increasing by 3 percent next year, in line with past increases.

Jan. 31 is the annual tuition deadline, though the school is asking parents to pay earlier if they can. If they do, Runnels could announce early that the high school will remain open.

Parents who pay in full by Jan. 31 receive the best deal. Costs go up a bit for families who opt to pay monthly or semiannually.

Originally, parents of Runnels' high school students were also facing a 3 percent tuition increase, but the school informed them in late October that had changed. The school held town hall meetings Sunday afternoon for staff and parents to explain the cost increase and the financial health of the high school.

Larry Collins attended the parents meeting and said he sensed much common good feeling for the school despite the shocking news.

“There’s nobody there who doesn’t want their kid at Runnels right now,” he said.

His daughter Caroline will be a senior next year. Consequently, Collins said he is keen to see the high school continue and says he'll pay the extra $4,440. Even so, he said he knows that's tough for some families, especially ones with multiple children there. He said he wishes tuition had increased incrementally rather than all at once.

Runnels students are a close-knit group. Twenty of the 45 graduating seniors this year started kindergarten together, or "lifers" as the school dubs them. Collins’ daughter didn’t arrive until fourth grade, but she's made close friends and the family wants to stay.

“This is a special place,” Collins said. “Our daughter studied the harp and she was able to play basketball. It doesn’t sound like those two things go together, but they do.”

The Sunday meetings prompted the launch of a fund drive, aimed at staff as well as school supporters and the formation of a new Finance Committee.

“I’m very optimistic,” founder Kelly Runnels said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ve been very encouraged by all the good vibes we’ve gotten.”

He said the increase is necessary “to maintain the high quality of education in our high school that we are used to” and the school on purpose announced it early in the school year.

“We thought the only fair thing we can do is to give the parents as much notice as we can,” he said.

Kelly Runnels launched the independent school in 1965 in his house, with just three students. It expanded into junior high and high school grades in 1983 when it moved to 17255 S. Harrell's Ferry Road. The Runnels School also maintains a preschool across town at 6455 Jefferson Highway.

Unlike almost all other private schools in Baton Rouge, Runnels School is not affiliated with a church and consequently lacks that added financial support. It is among the elite college prep schools in town — its most recent graduating class had a average ACT score of 26.1 out of 36. The school is also well known locally for its commitment to the arts.

Kelly Runnels, 81, led the school for years along with his wife, Gladys. Retired, he continues as president of its nonprofit corporation and remains active. In fall 2016, he spearheaded the rebuilding of the main campus after it flooded badly, forcing a two-month relocation.

The school’s financial problems, however, preceded the flood. Over the past decade, Runnels School has steadily lost students, decreasing from more than 800 students overall to about 550 currently. The high school portion of the school has decreased to fewer than 200 students.

The Runnels School celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding at a gala and fundraiser Oct. 4 at the Lod Cook Alumni Center.

On Wednesday, Kelly Runnels emailed answers to questions raised at Sunday’s town hall meetings.

“Today, we face issues brought on by a changing landscape in the school environment over the past 10 years,” he wrote. “It has developed due to the growth of charter schools, public magnet schools, and public school growth in surrounding parishes.”

In an interview, he said many local private schools are losing students to public schools, not to other tuition-charging private schools.

“It’s hard to compete with free,” he said.

While running the high school costs 2.5 times more than the elementary school, tuition in high school is close to the costs in the lower grades, in order to “make it affordable for more families," Runnels said.

That’s been difficult to maintain since the 2016 flood, years when the school has run a deficit each year of “several hundred thousand dollars,” he said.

“Our academic programming is thriving and successful; however, the school must retain students and increase enrollment as costs to operate slowly increase each year,” he wrote to parents Wednesday. “Since the most costly division is the high school, it is there that tuition and fees must increase.”

Runnels said in an interview that if 80% of current families pay their tuition between now and Jan. 31, that would leave the school within $200,000 of covering the cost of the high school, close enough for private donations to cover the difference; if 90% to 100% renew early, then the high school would be in good shape.

If Runnels High School transitions successfully to its higher tuition, which he said is still in the “mid-range” for local private high schools, it should be fine for the next several years.

“It’s just one hump we have to get over,” he said.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.