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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Plight of Small School Districts

Nearly a decade ago, prior to planning for a capital project that would expand and renovate the K-12 building, our school district faced a vote to determine whether the district should cease to exist and allow itself to become swallowed up by a larger neighboring district. It was a required step to examine options to the investment of state and local funds into the district. A school system has to analyze other alternatives to costly construction before seeking state aid for capital projects.

Although the community residents overwhelmingly reaffirmed their support for the school district be defeating the measure by a significant margin, the threat that our small (327 learners) school district could eventually succumb to low enrollment or strangulation by state mandates beyond its capacity to comply remains a possibility in the minds of those who experienced the fear of closure prior to that vote.

I have sensed that this lingering anxiety among some staff members may inhibit our long-term strategic vision. It's difficult to plan ahead and commit to a course of action if some people may be reluctant to enlist and invest in that mission because they fear that the district may end up merging anyway. This concern is latent despite four consecutive years in which no staff member has lost their job due to the constricting grip of state aid decreases to education during a stale economy.

As I tried to imagine how and why staff members might be reticent to fully engage in our improvement efforts I found myself conjuring up a possible explanation in the form of a short and simple book, with similarly plain illustrations designed to reduce a complex and compelling issue to its core. Nonetheless, I am confident that we will avoid the outcome in this book - a result that has devastated many schools across the state.

Though challenges await us, we have grown programs, empowered people, and improved achievement levels during the last four years. We have averted lay-offs and the loss of human capital that accompanies everyone who departs from a vacated role. We have stemmed the bleeding of money from the school system by virtue of fewer residents seeking alternative placements for their children in charter, private and parochial schools. We are turning the corner and looking over the horizon.

Here's the product of that thought process that serves as a warning and reminder to small schools and districts. This book lists the potential threats and the sources of anxiety among staff members and community members associated with a small school or district. It's that fear - that a community could lose its identity, its heritage, its hope for the future, which motivates me to sustain my pursuit of institutional survival for our district.

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