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Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as N.D. Schools Struggle With Enrollment Declines

N.D. Schools Struggle With Enrollment Declines

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In spite of dwindling enrollments and a gloomy outlook for the area's agricultural economy, the 150 or so residents of Robinson have refused to give up on local education.

For the first time since 1916, the age-worn, two-story wing of the building that has served generations of high school students here sits empty, an eerie portent of what some residents fear will be the demise of this remote farming community.

But just beyond the double doors that lead to the school's elementary wing--added in the 1960s--the echo of little voices breaks the silence. Here, 12 children, in kindergarten through 6th grade, represent both the pride the community has always taken in educating its own and the fading hope for the future of this depressed area.

In spite of dwindling enrollments and a gloomy outlook for the area's agricultural economy, the 150 or so residents of Robinson have refused to give up on local education. They are resisting pressure from the state of North Dakota and neighboring districts to simply merge with other school systems--a vivid example of the local resistance that often confounds consolidation efforts.

"We have surveyed our residents to death to find out what they want. They said, if you have to close the high school, do so, but hang on to that grade school for as long as you can," said school board President Gene Hetletved, a third-generation rancher in Robinson.

The story playing out here is the flip side of the national enrollment boom that has put a record 53.2 million students in American classrooms this fall. While school districts in much of the United States are scrambling to build new schools to serve a growing cadre of students, districts in sparsely populated areas of the West and Midwest are contending with the opposite extreme and fighting the threat of extinction.

As in many other rural communities, enrollments at the Robinson School have been dropping for years. The school board's decision to close the high school this year and farm its 16 students out to nearby districts was seen as a necessary sacrifice, a survival tactic that would ensure more resources to keep the grade school alive a few more years.

Even so, the school has just three kindergartners. Next year, it will have one. Birthrates have dropped so dramatically in this graying town--the fastest-growing age group is the 85-and-over crowd--that the pool of students could dry up within the next few years.

Such sentiment has long irked state officials throughout the region, who argue that local territorialism nurtures inefficiency and dooms rural schoolchildren to inadequate educational opportunities.

With the disappearance of many family farms and the continued exodus of residents seeking jobs elsewhere, it is hard to doubt that it is only a matter of time before the district dissolves altogether. But Mr. Hetletved and other school leaders continue to resist pressure to merge with bordering districts.

Such sentiment has long irked state officials throughout the region, who argue that local territorialism nurtures inefficiency and dooms rural schoolchildren to inadequate educational opportunities.

"The net effect of trying to save everybody is that [local school boards] are running schools into the ground until they run out of money or out of kids," said Tom Decker, the director of school finance and organization for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

Debating Consolidation

While recent studies have documented a bumper crop of new residents in rural communities in general--with much of the growth attributed to technology-related industry--the agriculture-dependent Midwestern states are losing residents en masse.

As a result, many school buildings sit nearly empty, with far more administrators and staff members than some experts deem prudent for such tiny student populations. State leaders argue that consolidation of administrative and facilities costs could free up more money for instruction.

But small communities here in North Dakota--as well as those in Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, and other Midwestern and Mountain states--have stubbornly refused to embrace consolidation. Local residents are convinced their towns can do the job of educating their children better themselves, or are fearful that once the schools close, their communities--unable to attract new families--will die.

In many of those states, education officials have steadily chiseled away at that resistance and, within the past decade, taken more aggressive measures. In Iowa, for instance, a 14-year-old consolidation plan has succeeded at whittling down the number of districts in the state from 438 to 377. Wyoming legislators have also forced some mergers, and they have presented another proposal to eliminate 10 of the remaining 48 districts to deal with an expected deficit in the 2000-2001 biennial education budget.

North Dakota has also pushed the issue, but with little success. Of the state's 229 districts, about half have fewer than 200 students. According to projections, the state's total public school enrollment of 112,000 is expected to slide at least 10 percent over the next decade, and many local districts will suffer enrollment drops of 10 percent to 60 percent over the next five years. About 20 districts have fewer than two dozen students.

Some researchers, however, see good reason for fighting the trend toward consolidation.

Consolidation "is very much continuing the old industrial model of schooling and the notion that you need a large school to offer quality programs," said Paul Nachtigal, who retired last month as a co-director of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a national philanthropic effort that has pumped $500 million into supporting small schools. "The impact of communities losing their schools is significant," Mr. Nachtigal said. "We generally take the position that any identifiable community ought to have a community school."

The Robinson school district serves the town's tiny enclave of one-story homes and a vast, flat hinterland of farms and cattle ranches. It is one of five districts in Kidder County, a 1,250-square-mile area about an hour east of Bismarck, the state capital. Next year, those districts, each with its own school board, are expected to enroll a total of 255 students. By 2005, that number is projected to drop to 214.

North Dakota's state education chief, Wayne G. Sanstead, has backed several measures in the legislature to compel districts to consider mergers more seriously. One proposal--to nullify districts, such as Robinson, that cannot sustain their own high schools--failed to pass in the last session, which ended in June. Lawmakers, however, did approve a $2 million incentive plan, with funding of up to $50,000 each, for districts that join to form a larger agency encompassing at least 800 square miles.

"All these little districts want to be the survivor," said Mr. Sanstead, who has pushed for consolidation throughout his 16-year tenure. "There is a denial of what's taking place around them. The question is how can we continue to provide quality education under these circumstances."

Mr. Decker of the state education department suggests that "we need to redefine what local is." One of his recommendations would plot districts on 40-mile grids around significant economic centers, with a school complex in the middle. Another proposal would set up countywide units. So far, only two groups of North Dakota districts have expressed interest in the incentive plan.

Without more mandates, Mr. Sanstead said, it will be difficult to force the kind of large-scale consolidations that state officials view as a necessity. The political climate in the state is still one that values local control.

"It is going to happen somehow ... but I'm not sure that we should force consolidation," said Sen. Layton Freborg, a Republican who chairs his chamber's education committee. "We've been spoon-feeding them trying to get things started."

The Carrot and the Stick

The monetary carrot was first dangled in front of local school leaders a decade ago. Dozens of school systems expressed interest, but only one merger resulted.

Some consolidation has occurred naturally through attrition of students or out of fiscal necessity. In 1961, North Dakota had more than 1,000 separate districts, compared with the current 229. The winnowing process has been "slow and piecemeal," according to Mr. Decker. And it has nearly always been contentious.

When Mr. Sanstead rejected a school renovation plan for one district near Fargo earlier this year, local school proponents were outraged. But the plan did not satisfy the new state requirement that school construction proceed only in areas where enrollments are expected to remain stable or rise. The district making the request could make no such claim, and it had no significant merger plans.

Over the years, many districts have tested the merger waters--conducting studies, holding public hearings, and meeting with other school boards. Most efforts were doomed from the start, the victims of lingering territorial animosity or 20-year-old basketball rivalries.

In Robinson, the reasons are more substantial than that, residents here say. A merger proposal floated by the Tuttle and Pettibone districts, which flank Robinson to the west and east respectively, would have bused Robinson's students an additional 20 miles.

"Why would you want to send those little kids on a bus for any longer than you have to," argued Mr. Hetletved, who spent 18 years driving a school bus over bumpy back roads. The trip is particularly treacherous, he said, during the North Dakota winter, when temperatures can fall to 20 degrees below zero.

What's more, parent satisfaction is high in Robinson. The school averages one teacher for every four students, and it has at least one computer per child.

As Mr. Hetletved pointed out: "We have what rich people pay for."

The two neighboring districts, which already share a superintendent, are anxious to merge as a way to bolster enrollments and pool the resources of all three communities. But they cannot do so unless Robinson joins them, a fact that has created some hard feelings between residents of the three jurisdictions.

"We've been trying to work out an equitable solution ... but [Robinson residents] don't want to lose their school," said Mike O'Brien, the superintendent for both the Tuttle and Pettibone districts.

The two districts that bookend Robinson, with a total of 86 students, have had to make do with a cooperative agreement. They share schools--the elementary school is in Pettibone and the middle/high school is in Tuttle--as well as staff members and resources.

Ironically, the buses that shuttle students across district lines each day meet in the middle--in the Robinson School parking lot. The rendezvous is a daily reminder to Robinson officials of the option they rejected.

Learning Opportunities

The current arrangement still saves the Tuttle and Pettibone districts about $70,000 each per year. That's a significant amount given that, during the 1998-99 school year, the Tuttle district spent about $597,000 on education while Pettibone spent about $331,000. But the inevitable savings haven't swayed enough districts, Mr. Decker said. Many communities, such as Robinson, have so few students that they can afford to keep their small schools running. Even when money is tight, local officials have gone to great lengths to keep schools afloat. Many districts share athletics programs, with parents and fans in some parts of the state driving up to 70 miles for "home" games. Like Tuttle and Pettibone, many jurisdictions share staff members and other resources.

So state officials have started appealing to parents' concerns about their children's educational opportunities.

"When 100-some districts are in survival mode, you can't make meaningful long-range decisions about facilities or curriculum or providing quality education," Mr. Decker said.

But many rural school advocates don't buy the argument that more is always better.

"I don't know of solid, convincing research that says a larger school is better than a smaller school," said Joe Newlin, the executive director of the National Rural School Network in Fort Collins, Colo.

"Parents and administrators can consolidate voluntarily [if they believe it] will improve the educational opportunities for students, but it should not be forced on them," he said.

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Pages 1,16-17

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