Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Last Hurrah for a Rural School

Controlled Burn:
Older section of school
There were no girls in the senior class of 1987, forcing Humboldt-St. Vincent to do without a homecoming queen. Things improved this year, when all three girls in the class vied for the honor.

Classes don't come any smaller than in Humboldt-St. Vincent. It's a school with 65 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, including one fourth-grader. The average grade has five students.

That's too small for state officials, who see nothing romantic about the arrangements and are happy that the school district is finally ready to close shop. For Education Commissioner Gene Mammenga, the tiny school in Kittson County is a prime example of public education gone awry.

Humboldt-St. Vincent, 410 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, ranks as the state's smallest K-12 school district and spends $11,381 each year to educate a single student. That's the highest of any K-12 district in Minnesota and more than twice the state average. A state study called the spending astronomical.

Last Classes
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Moreover, the district holds classes in an 85-year-old school that violates state codes and is faced with a financial crisis after piling up debt for four years. A lack of money and students makes it difficult to offer many electives.

"It's a waste of money, but more important than that, it's a waste of human potential, with young people who had a limited academic experience," Mammenga said.

Those are fighting words for those who farm the flat, rich land of the Red River Valley.

"Typical bureaucrat sitting in the white ivory towers, totally removed from the realities of rural America," said Humboldt Mayor Curtis Miller, who grows wheat, barley and sugar beets on 2,100 acres. "The way of life in rural America is very sacred to us."

That's why these are sad days in Humboldt, where farmers need rain and school ends for good on May 30. It's the end of a long era that began in 1882, when the district was created.

"It's hard," said School Board Chairman Bill Dykhuis. "It's always emotional. We realize we're giving up everything. There's never going to be a school here again. This will be tough on Humboldt."

Most people say there's no choice but to close the school, but a messy fight is brewing over a plan to consolidate with Hallock, just 12 miles from Humboldt. The consolidation has been approved by the state and is to take effect July 1, when all of the district's debts and assets are turned over to Hallock. Seven new school board members will be elected in June to represent the district.

"We're being railroaded into going to Hallock," said Pat Misson, a St. Vincent farmer who is battling the school board. "They've taken the club approach."

Misson and many of his neighbors argue that their children would have a much shorter bus ride if they enrolled at Pembina, N.D., which is just across the Red River. As a protest, they intend to ask for a referendum this month in an attempt to overturn the school board's action, but Misson acknowledged that it will be difficult to win an election.

"I've thought about moving across the river (to North Dakota)," he said.

The politics of consolidation has even hit the families of Ken Wiese and LeRoy Clow, two school board members. Their sons want to use open enrollment to transfer to Lancaster, Minn., because they've made friends there in paired sports programs.

"I play football over there and I know a lot more people in Lancaster than I do in Hallock," said Todd Clow, a ninth-grader. His father is the school board clerk and a supporter of the Hallock consolidation.

"I've tried to talk him out of it," LeRoy Clow said. "It's like trying to push a cat out of a barn door. Every time I talk to him, he digs his claws in a little deeper."

School officials believe most students will end up in Hallock, but many of those who are going there are less than happy.

"I think it stinks," said Thomas Owl, a 16-year-old junior and the only student in his welding class. He fears he won't see his friends as often, particularly those who are going to Lancaster, 15 miles away.

"It's pretty scary," said Lisa Skjold, 14, who is headed for Hallock, too. "You just don't really know what to expect. It'll be totally different."

But like their parents, most students say the right decision has been made, that it's impossible to fight a losing battle. The district ended the 1989-90 year with a deficit of $376,000.

"It's time to move on, and not keep hanging on," said David Wiese, this year's homecoming king and a fullback on the football team.

"We don't have enough money to keep it going," said Skjold, an eighth-grader. "And things just keep getting worse as the days go by."

Despite the clamor over the issue this year, school consolidations still are relatively rare in Minnesota. Since 1979, the state has seen only 10 consolidations, but the pace appears to be quickening. Three of the 10 consolidations took place last year, and a few more could come this year.

Mammenga wants to consolidate or reorganize 248 of Minnesota's 432 school districts by 1995, saying the state has been remiss in allowing school districts such as Humboldt-St. Vincent to stay open this long. His mandatory plan would affect school districts with fewer than 1,300 students, but it has failed to win any support in the Legislature.

As a result, consolidations are still voluntary, but some believe that the climate for mandatory consolidation will ripen by 1993, when redistricting swings political power to the metropolitan region. Last month, Mammenga told the State Board of Education that he will continue pushing his plan because Minnesota can no longer afford to support many of the small rural districts.

"I was guilty in a sense of taking a very extreme case," Mammenga said. "But we as a state allowed these districts to continue operating far beyond the point at which we should have intervened."

Mammenga's stance doesn't make him the most popular state official in the sparse and sprawling district, which covers 120 square miles and shares borders with Canada and North Dakota. Folks in Humboldt-St. Vincent defend their prairie school, saying students have done well and received much more attention than they would in larger schools.

Still, most acknowledge that students will have more opportunities in Hallock, which has about 360 students. That doesn't make closing any easier, especially for teachers who wonder what next year will bring. Humboldt-St. Vincent and Hallock have combined their seniority lists, which could mean layoffs for nine to 12 younger teachers at Hallock.

"I don't know where I'm going to be living," said Dave Carlson, Humboldt-St. Vincent's high school science and eighth-grade math teacher. "I don't know if I'll have a job."

Carlson is one of 14 full-time teachers at the school, which is so small that it gets by with one cook and two bus drivers. It's just one-tenth the size of an average school district in Minnesota, which has 620 students. This year's final graduating class has seven students. Enrollment has dropped 32 percent in six years and shows no signs of rebounding.

Indeed, all of Kittson County has experienced a big population decline, from 6,672 in 1980 to 5,763 in 1990. Consequently, the consolidation talk shows no signs of fading, and many believe that Lancaster and nearby Kennedy, Minn., will soon need to merge with Humboldt-St. Vincent and Hallock.

"That's what I'd like to see," said Janice Hanson, chairwoman of the Hallock School Board.

"It's just getting to the point where all of these schools are going to have to consolidate," said Gary Mrazek, Humboldt-St. Vincent's industrial education teacher, who intends to start looking for a new job. "It's just being realistic."

In Humboldt, where the town's population is now 74, the school is the town's biggest employer. Once it closes, that distinction will go to the Humboldt-St.Vincent Elevator Association. It does $9 million in business each year, buying wheat and grain from farmers and selling them fertilizer and chemicals in return. Its lobby, along with Mabel's Cafe, are the town's hot spots. Much has changed since Humboldt's heyday of the 1920s, when some entrepreneurs even tried drilling for oil, with no luck. Two grocery stores and a machinery repair shop have closed, leaving only five businesses, a post office and the Methodist Church. Abandoned houses provide more evidence of a dying town.

All that is left...
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There's talk of keeping the school's newer building, constructed as an addition in 1955, open as a recreation center, but no decision has been made.

Soon it will be time to sort through the trophy cases and pack away the old graduation pictures that line the walls outside of Superintendent Guy McDonald's office.

Townspeople say they're going to miss the basketball games, the Christmas programs and class plays. The final spring concert will be next month.

"I've just been thinking about how hard it's going to be to hear the last concert," said Harriet Docken, the school's elementary music teacher for 23 years.

The high school band is down to 12 members, but they're practicing hard.

"We are making darn sure that we are ending this year in one big blaze of glory," said Don Martin, who teaches band and choir. "That's the only way to go."

Minnesota's big spenders

These 10 school districts have the highest per pupil expenditures for educating kindergarten-12th grade students for fiscal year 1990:

Spending Number per "pupil of pupils unit" #

1.   Humboldt-St. Vincent        $9,870        65
2.   Red Lake                          $8,245       981
3.   Kennedy                            $7,558      143
4.   Marietta                             $6,948        88
5.   Strandquist                         $6,689        87
6.   Borup                                $6,293       118
7.   Sandstone                          $6,175       648
8.   St. Anthony                        $5,616       940
9.   St. Louis Park                    $5,565    4,095
10. Cass Lake                          $5,538       858

# - Humboldt spends an average of $11,381 to educate each student. That figure drops to an average of $9,870 when computed on a "per pupil unit" basis, a formula that gives greater weight to secondary students. Humboldt leads all K-12 districts in Minnesota in both categories.

Source: Minnesota Department of Education
Copyright Star Tribune Newspaper of the Twin Cities Apr 1, 1991