Make way for urbanites

Small towns and schools sure look good. But cultures clash as newcomers place new demands on quiet hamlets.

Ask a lot of young American families about their Top 10 desires and you'll probably hear the following: a comfortable lifestyle, room for two careers, strong schools, and a large house amid plenty of of green space.

Sounds nice. But add those dreams together and what you've got is a crisis-in-the-making for a number of formerly rural school districts.

Many families are on a quest for more space, lower-cost housing, and more nurturing schools. Propelled by expanded highways and the rise of telecommuting, more than a few are pushing into once-remote areas. And their enthusiasm for country living is creating some sticky situations for school boards.

Many towns across the United States were caught unawares by the bumper crop of babies born in the 1980s. But in certain communities it's not so much the jolt in birth rates that's crowding their classrooms and accelerating spending. Instead, it's a shift in population patterns that's got them scrambling to maintain their traditional charm while accommodating a new population.

Take Bucks County, Pa. The population there jumped 6 percent - from 541,000 residents to 574,000 - between 1990 and 1995. It's continued to escalate, putting pressure on infrastructure - particularly the school system.

"We went from no debt in 1990 to $175 million in debt by 1998," says Charles Baker, parent and member of the Central Bucks School Board. "We had less than 10,000 students in 1990. We expect to hit 20,000 by 2002."

Central Bucks has coped with its population explosion by building two new elementary schools and making major additions to four middle schools and two high schools.

But two years ago, it drew the line. In an attempt to slow growth and an enrollment that was severely straining the schools, the school board moved to buy development rights to $300 million-worth of farm land in the area. The Pennsylvania school code, however, prohibited a school district from buying land, so the county stepped in instead, buying $200 million of land with the approval of 83 percent of area voters.

In neighboring Berks County - an area made newly attractive by the opening of roads easing a commute to New York City - longtime residents are facing some of the same worries.

"It's one of the really critical issues in this part of the country," says John Kramer, director of Albright College's center for local government in Reading, Pa. "There's a whole series of spin-off effects" to the population increase specifically relating to schools, he points out. "There's an increase in the various school taxes, although the increases don't necessarily offset the increased costs. There's more wear and tear on the roads, more wear and tear on the school buses."

Annex a working farm?

It's not just Pennsylvania feeling such pressures. In Shrewsbury, Mass., emotions ran high when the town, in an effort to cope with a rising tide of new students, tried to annex half of a working farm as a site for a school.

The attempt failed, but many area residents were horrified by what the move said about the changing nature of the countryside and the increase in school population.

"The fact that they're building schools on this land is less of an issue than the fact that you need these new schools at all," says Bob Wagner, director of field programs for the American Farmland Trust.

And even in areas where finding space to build is less of a problem, changes in school-population patterns can create other difficulties. Certain areas of Montana "saw painful growth in school enrollment from 1991 through 1996," says Dori Nielson, director of measurement and accountability for the Office of Public Instruction in Helena. She chuckles as she characterizes many of the newcomers as "people who saw [Robert Redford's film] 'A River Runs Through It' and said, 'Oh, I've got to live there.' "

"The people who are moving in are somewhat financially able," explains Dr. Nielson. "They're building large houses on the outskirts of towns and in some cases it's been necessary to shift the location of the schools. That's a disadvantage to the people who've been there all along, not to mention the expense of the new building."

Culture clash

There's also often a clash of cultures. The newcomers want "schools that are less pressured, more comfortable," Nielson says. Yet many also expect extras like swimming pools and SAT prep courses. "They're not really prepared for a rural lifestyle," she adds.

Nor are rural school districts always prepared for the tough critiques offered by many of the newcomers, says William Walter, assistant superintendent for elementary education in the Central Bucks School District. "Parents spend months researching the exact school district they want and then the moment they move here they start telling us what to do," he says. "They can't understand why there aren't aides in the kindergarten classes and door-to-door bus service."

One area senior citizen, says Dr. Walter, counseled him to "have lousier schools so they'd stop coming here."

Still, Walter says the benefits of the newcomers outweigh the difficulties.

Other communities agree. In tiny Adams, Neb. (pop. 472), superintendent S. Sterling Troxel hopes to see enrollment in the town's consolidated high school climb from its current level of 325 to somewhere between 600 and 900 as more and more commuters from Lincoln make their way out to the rural town.

"It's absolutely a good thing," Mr. Troxel says of the possibilities afforded by a larger school. "It makes for a more in-depth and broader curriculum."

Competing for new students

And on the western edge of Oregon, small towns along Route 5 are actively competing for the new students moving into the area, says Joyce Ley, director of the Rural Education Program at the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory in Portland. "Some of these school districts are operating on a shoestring," she points out. "Of course they want the new students if they bring [state] funding with them."

But Pam Pillmore, mother of five school-age children and a newcomer to the Buck County area, insists people like her bring more than just funding to their new towns and schools. "New people bring in new, fresh ideas," she says. "Things can't just stay the way they've always been. That won't work."

The Pillmores lived for a time in rural western Massachusetts, but she and her husband found the schools there insufficiently challenging for their children.

"Before we moved here I came down on my own and spent time shopping for schools," says Mrs. Pillmore. "Education is very high on our priority list."

She settled on the Central Bucks district as best. She says she loves the energy the growth in the area creates. "We're building new schools, we're really moving," she says.

She understands, however, why longtime residents may be unhappy. "I can see both sides of the coin. I do feel for the residents losing the green area." On the other hand, she adds, "We bring something new to the community, if they'll just open their arms."

* Send comments to coeymanm@csps.com

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