No Place Like Home

January 01, 2000 5 min read
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, high school wing of the building that has served generations of students in Robinson, North Dakota, sits empty, an eerie portent of what some residents fear will be the demise of this remote community. Last year, the school board decided to farm the town’s 16 high schoolers out to nearby districts, a move designed to free up resources for the grade school and keep it alive a few more years. Now, the only sound to break the building’s silence is the echo of little voices in the elementary wing. There, 12 children in kindergarten through 6th grade laugh, play, and learn, the community’s last best hope for the future.

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 hand over the education of their youngest children to others. They are bucking pressure from state officials and neighboring districts to 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,” says school board President Gene Hetletved, a third-generation rancher in Robinson. “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.’”

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 school year. While school districts in much of the United States are scrambling to build new schools, districts in sparsely populated areas of the West and Midwest are fighting extinction. State leaders argue that consolidation of rural districts devoid of students could free up more money for instruction by eliminating surplus facilities and bureaucracies. But small communities in North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, and other Midwestern and Mountain states have balked at the idea. Local residents believe their towns can do the job of educating their children better. And they’re fearful that once the schools close, their communities-unable to attract new families-will die.

State officials argue that local territorialism nurtures inefficiency and dooms rural schoolchildren to inadequate educational opportunities.

Today, the Robinson 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. 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 Hetletved and other school leaders refuse to budge on consolidation.

Nor should they have to, argues Joe Newlin, executive director of the National Rural School Network in Fort Collins, Colorado. “I don’t know of solid, convincing research that says a larger school is better than a smaller school,” he says. “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.”

Such stubbornness has long irked state officials, who argue that local territorialism nurtures inefficiency and robs rural schoolchildren of 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,” says Tom Decker, director of school finance and organization for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

North Dakota’s state education chief, Wayne 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 during last year’s legislative session. State lawmakers, however, did approve a plan to pay up to $50,000 to school systems that join to form a district encompassing at least 800 square miles. So far, only two groups of North Dakota districts have expressed interest in such incentives.

“All these little districts want to be the survivor,” says 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.”

The Robinson school district serves a 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.

Over the years, towns have rejected mergers because of lingering territorial animosity and 20-year-old basketball rivalries. Robinson residents, however, claim their opposition is not trivial. 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?” asks Hetletved, who spent 18 years driving a school bus over bumpy back roads. During the winter, when temperatures can fall to 20 degrees below zero, the trip is particularly treacherous. 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 Hetletved points out: “We have what rich people pay for.”

The Tuttle and Pettibone districts are anxious to merge with Robinson as a way to boost their combined 86-student enrollment and pool the resources of all three communities. Already, they share a superintendent, schools-the elementary school is in Pettibone and the middle/high school is in Tuttle-as well as staff. Ironically, the buses that shuttle students across district lines each day meet in the middle-in the Robinson School parking lot.

Still, Robinson has resisted, 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,” says Mike O’Brien, superintendent for the Tuttle and Pettibone school districts.

--Kathleen Kennedy Manzo