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Weak economy threatens rural schools

Cash-strapped districts are considering closing small, far-flung outposts. But parents and other residents say that would hurt their children's education and their communities.

January 22, 2009|Ashley Powers

MOUNT CHARLESTON, NEV. — Ron and Paula Marino decided to move from Las Vegas to this village of thick pines and ski-lodge-style homes so their two boys can attend Earl B. Lundy Elementary School.

With its one teacher for a total of nine students, the school seemed like Shangri-La within the underfunded and overcrowded Clark County School District, which encompasses Las Vegas and outlying rural areas.

But by the time the Marinos' 4- and 5-year-old boys are ready to start school, Lundy may be closed.

The one-room school is a potential victim of the nation's economic crisis, which has endangered the survival of far-flung schoolhouses -- an icon of rural America, immortalized in the "Little House on the Prairie" book and TV series, and often a community hub in no-stoplight towns.

Officials in 25 to 30 states are considering rural school cuts, said Marty Strange, policy director for the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. The one-teacher school is in particular danger. In 2005-06, the most recent year for which data are available, only 335 remained, Strange said.

In the last year or so, officials in Nebraska, Michigan, North Dakota, Maine, Virginia and Florida have shut down or discussed closing remote classrooms.

"It's a gut-wrenching decision," said Supt. Nancy McGinley, whose Charleston County, S.C., district is proposing closing two rural middle schools. "Not only are these communities remote, but there's a high level of poverty. Some parents don't have a car and can't get up the road to another school."

Rural school advocates say funding gaps make the schools easy targets. Per-pupil costs are higher in smaller schools, and political power is usually centered in cities. Bigger schools have a wider range of classes and more specialists, such as art and music teachers. But rural school supporters say children in large schools receive little individual attention, spend hours riding buses and miss out on parents playing a role in their education.

In California, the Chico Unified School District voted last year to close two far-flung schools. The Napa Valley Unified School District is debating whether to keep open several schools with fewer than 200 pupils each. In that district, a one-room school in Wooden Valley has been around in some form for 150 years.

"I don't want to put small schools in the cross hairs, but at this point anything we do is going to be painful," Supt. John Glaser said.

Even in a robust economy, Supt. Lou Obermeyer said, her district in San Diego County would have eventually discussed closing the Palomar Mountain School, whose enrollment had dwindled from about 50 students to seven. The district, which laid off teachers last year, simply couldn't afford to keep it open.

In Nevada, whose tourism and construction industries have imploded, the Clark County School District -- the nation's fifth-largest -- must cut about $120 million from a budget of more than $2 billion. Among the options: closing Lundy Elementary and another one-room school in Goodsprings that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lundy's per-pupil cost is estimated at more than three times the district average. The district expects that closing Lundy would save about $240,000 a year. Lundy's students, in kindergarten through the fifth grade, would be bused about 75 minutes each morning, along with middle and high school students, to the town of Indian Springs.

The plan enraged Mount Charleston residents. The town's cluster of half-million-dollar homes looks like a village inside a snow globe, with picture windows and Christmas lights, but no gas pumps or grocery stores. The 2000 census pegs its population -- generally white-collar and well-educated -- at 285. Like residents of Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear, some folks enjoy working in a city but returning to an enclave with starry skies, huge yards, a few hotel rooms and no downtown.

Down a narrow road from the library and the fire station, the school hosts the fall festival, town meetings and garage sales. The "cafetorium" is sprinkled with paper snowflakes; on the classroom's walls is a patchwork of alphabet charts and older students' essays.

"When you see that school, you see the regeneration of a neighborhood," said state Sen. John Lee, who owns a second home here. "You know those will be your neighbors one day."

At a recent meeting with district officials, dozens of residents clutched information packets that called closing the school, which opened in the 1960s, a "blatant abuse of discretion." They said it would remove a cornerstone of their community, push down property values and harm their children's education. They offered to raise money to keep Lundy open.

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