Changing times and budgets put the squeeze on Small-town schools

Shawn McDiffet packs a lot into the space of a working day.

This rural-school principal is up with the sun at his home in the western panhandle of Nebraska, a dry stretch of farmland wrapped around the northeast corner of Colorado. As dawn's first rays begin to warm the surrounding cornfields, he slides behind the wheel of a school bus in tiny Brule, Neb., (population 411) to shuttle students to South Platte Elementary and High School in nearby Big Springs (population 495).

Once he's settled in at the 152-student school, Mr. McDiffet's routine kicks into high gear. He takes attendance, returns a stack of phone calls, teaches four business classes, calls the shots on a handful of disciplinary problems, oversees lunch, and tackles administrative tasks.

Many winter evenings, he stays late to referee a basketball game. "That's my really busy time of the year," grins McDiffet, who combines the bulk of a football player with the gentle style of a friendly collie dog.

It might not be everybody's idea of fun, but for McDiffet and others like him, the variety, warmth, and humble details that shape the days at a small rural school constitute a cherished way of life - and one some fear is nearing extinction.

The United States was once dotted with tiny towns clustered around little schoolhouses. But such rural outposts have become the exception. According to a recent US Department of Education study, today only about 6.9 million American public school students - or about 1 in 6 - attend school in a community of less than 2,500 residents, or one defined as rural by the 1991-92 government census.

Rural schools are not the only ones affected by consolidation. "The US has lost about 90 percent of its school districts and 40 percent of its schools since the turn of the century," says Craig Howley, a researcher at Ohio University. In 1929, Dr. Howley says, there were 25.7 million children in this country attending 262,000 schools in 127,000 districts. By 1989, there were 40.5 million students in 85,000 schools in 15,400 districts.

A rent in the rural fabric

Some say rural areas are disproportionately harmed. Rural school consolidation, they say, can mean not only infeasibly long bus rides, but also the unraveling of community fabric.

When school doors shut in small towns, Howley says, "there's a loss of community life. The loss of schools is parallel to the loss of institutions and society."

Rural schools across the US have wrestled for decades with consolidation. But here in this Plains state - which faces a declining rural population, a fragile agricultural economy, and a populace desperate for property-tax relief - the problem has become acute.

The Nebraska State Legislature recently enacted a cap on local property-tax levels, dropping them to $1.10 from $1.49 per $1,000 of assessed value. Taxes are scheduled to drop even further next year. The move provides tax relief, especially to farmers and elderly homeowners on fixed incomes - but it also puts a stranglehold on the funding of small-town schools, which tend to be in areas where property values are low and industry is scarce.

In addition, some Nebraskans say the state funding formula is biased in favor of larger schools. But others don't see that as a bad thing. After all, they point out, their sparsely populated state (about 1.6 million people) has 604 school districts, the fourth-largest number of districts in the nation. The levy lid, they believe, will push rural schools to consolidate into more cost-effective, regional units. Such a move would be an ironic reversal of the national push for smaller classes and a more nurturing environment - exactly the virtues a school like the one in Big Springs exemplifies.

Efficiency and breadth

But for critics, attempts to maintain small rural schools represent a romanticism out of step with the realities of today's world. In many rural areas, says Robert Hall, a professor of educational administration at Western Illinois University in Macomb, school consolidation is the only sensible course. Larger schools are more efficient from a fiscal point of view, Dr. Hall says, and they offer broader options. Often, he says, rural schools offer "no advanced-placement courses, only two years of a foreign language, and physics and chemistry are sometimes taught opposite years. These schools do the best they can but it's not ideal." Hall also says that small schools can overburden teachers.

But Fred Gleason, guidance counselor in Big Springs, insists the academics at his 84-student high school are superior to those at the 1,200-student school where he worked some years ago. Fewer electives are compensated for by stiff requirements for graduation and strong basics.

"To graduate from here, [students] need four years of math, history, English, and science, plus two years of fine arts," Mr. Gleason says. Students have eight solid periods a day, with no study halls.

"We work 'em pretty good," he says. "These kids get a lot of attention."

That may also explain the school's almost nonexistent dropout rate. "A kid drops out maybe once every other year," he says. "But it's rare. We bend over backward to keep them here."

"It's so easy to get one-on-one time," agrees Lindsey Peterman, a senior. The small scale of the school has helped make her a strong student, she says. "You get a better chance at playing sports, a better chance in a smaller band and choir."

Overall, small schools have done a good job, says Stan Kravig, a superintendent who is presiding over both the Geneva and Fairmont school districts in central Nebraska, which are preparing to merge. "That's why Nebraska and Iowa schools score so well on national tests."

What worries Mr. Kravig and others is that state legislators won't let small schools be. Current legislation is "designed to bleed small schools to death," he says. The merger of Geneva (550 students) and Fairmont (185) schools, for example, is being pushed by the loss of funding caused by the property-tax cap.

Parental resistance

A group of Fairmont parents is resisting the move, saying that students not only benefit from caring surroundings close to home, but also score comfortably above both state and national averages on standardized tests. "What we're doing ... is best for the kids," says Tom Boyer, a Fairmont parent and local banker.

In the eyes of Nebraskans like Mr. Boyer, what's really taking place in his state is a battle of "us" against "them" - the older, shrinking rural world versus the dominantly urban and suburban culture of today. Nebraska's population is clustered in the eastern edge of the state around Omaha and Lincoln. Since the state has only one legislative house, and its representation is determined by population, the western end of the state often feels discriminated against.

Each locality does have the right to vote to override the property-tax cap. But the South Platte school district lost $300,000 of its $2.5 million budget and had to drop four teaching positions last year when the levy lid took effect. Voters rejected a recent plea for an increase.

Some school employees feel bitter about the decision. "I understand the farmers need [tax] relief too," says Andy Christensen, vocational agriculture and science teacher at South Platte High. "But people paid for them to go to school."

The South Platte school district is already a consolidated one. Whether the district will be able to afford to continue as it is today is unclear. Superintendent John Frates is not optimistic. "We're worried about our way of life. We're still able to provide an excellent education to kids here but how long we can persevere, I don't know."

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