Editor's Note: This number
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The school consolidation proposals that have made their way to our communities and school boards are rare opportunities and are long overdue. However, it is all too easy for any single participant to disrupt an opportunity our communities, students and taxpayers desperately need. We are currently facing a time of high taxes and poor markets, a time of rapidly changing education needs and a time of persistent, slow community decay. Now is the time to consider consolidation options for our schools.
US News & World Report puts Nebraska as #2 in high school graduation rates but only #22 in college readiness. This is likely due to so many Nebraskan schools being too small to offer a variety of stimulating classes for their students. Small schools, like the ones in our communities, provide many benefits, among them: low student-to-faculty ratios, the ability for faculty to connect with their students and student bodies where most students know each other. However, schools that are too small suffer other problems: lack of advanced classes; the inability to hire teachers that provide accelerated, skill-building and career-oriented classes; lack of resources for their brightest, most capable students; too few teachers for constructive intra-departmental curriculum planning and development; inability to sufficiently support extracurricular activities that engage students’ varying abilities and interests; and uncertainty for the continuance of existing academic and extracurricular programs.
Many of these issues plague our schools already and will only get worse. As an example, in the 2016-2017 school year, Neligh-Oakdale was unable to compete for a state title in football after having a completed a perfect season because there was not enough interest by the small student body to support the eleven-man team they were required to have to compete for a state title. Shrinking student bodies will make it increasingly difficult for sports and other extracurricular activities to not only succeed in competing against other schools, but also to even keep programs open.
Right now our schools are unable to properly promote STEM and will be unable to in the future if they stay at the size they are. For those that do not know, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has been the driving force behind American innovation and world leadership (politicians and business leaders cannot drive us forward without someone actually doing the innovative work). In fact, STEM is as essential to modern agriculture as the farmers and as essential to modern medicine as the practitioners. Giving our students advanced STEM classes prepares them for college, the workplace and encourages them to be innovators — ones that are interested in innovating for the needs of Nebraska and Nebraskans.
This, too, is already affecting students. Neligh-Oakdale did not offer a calculus class to class of 2015 seniors due to very few students taking it per year (another consequence of size). Calculus is often a requirement for the engineering schools that train our innovators and engineers; thus, many high schools around the nation offer as many as three years of calculus to ensure their students have the ability to succeed. Half a dozen of the exceptional students in Neligh-Oakdale’s class of 2016 (three of which achieved ACT scores over 30 — the first time any student had scored over thirty in at least over six years at Neligh-Oakdale — and two of which had intentions to and did attend engineering colleges) were eager for a calculus class. Unsurprisingly, Neligh-Oakdale had no intentions of offering a calculus class and, if it were not for the resolve of the students in this class and the support of their classmates in petitioning to get the school to offer calculus, Neligh-Oakdale would not have offered calculus.
While small class sizes are a problem, some people may be concerned about a school merger resulting in class sizes being too large. According to the preliminary merger numbers provided during the July Neligh-Oakdale school board meeting, even under a five school merger, total class sizes would be roughly 65-75 people. This becomes large enough to fully support an array of classes such as: Advanced Placement (AP) classes, additional STEM classes, college dual-credit classes, career focused classes and modern technology classes. Yet, it is not too large to allow students to know their peers well. Elementary students will still get the individual attention they need, as their teaching class sizes are unlikely to increase by much. As Neligh-Oakdale’s Superintendent Gregory stated: “you can have fifteen kids in a room and still meet individual needs by having paras in there...the paras under this system [a merger] would benefit very much, because I don’t see much reduction for them.” Junior high and high school students will not see many individual classes increase in size since there will be more specialized classes to split students between. Even under a five school merger, class sizes are small enough to receive all the benefits of small schools and classes, yet large enough to receive all the benefits of a larger school.
It is easy to talk about the benefits or greatness of a new school facility without talking about finances and discussing finances is of utmost importance right now. As most people know, property taxes are far too high in many areas during these times of difficult market conditions, destabilizing our local agricultural economy that may have heavy ripple effects through the rest of our local economy. Not to mention, high property taxes unnecessarily burden all of our businesses and community members. Any businesses and families considering moving to our communities must also consider the high property taxes and are likely to choose other communities with lower taxes, persisting community decay instead of rejuvenating community growth.
The preliminary school levy numbers provided at the July Neligh-Oakdale school board meeting are promising. For those that do not know, the estimated school levies for combined general budget and facility bond are: 0.4910 (Clearwater, Ewing, Elgin, N-O, Orchard), 0.6076 (Clearwater, Ewing, N-O, Orchard), 0.5289 (Clearwater, Elgin, Ewing, N-O), and 0.7259 (Clearwater, Ewing, N-O). And, according to Nebraska Department of Revenue each of these districts’ school levies were: 0.3365 (Elgin), 0.6658 (Clearwater), 0.8604 (Neligh-Oakdale), 0.7202 (Ewing), and 0.6507 (Orchard). The numbers speak for themselves.
If one of the proposed merger consolidations that does not include all five schools ends up going through, schools not involved will only suffer more. There will be many parents that will opt-out of their school district and opt-in the consolidated school. It is not a question of if, it is a question of how many. A consolidated school with more and better academic and extracurricular options will be an attractive alternative parents have not yet had. As parents opt-out of their districts, these districts will decay faster and faster when fewer students result in worse and fewer academic and extracurricular options. Soon, school districts face the threat of spiraling out of existence.
Members from five community school boards getting together and actually sitting down to discuss possible arrangements for school mergers and the numbers involved is a monumental achievement. It shows that our communities have the ability to overcome any differences they may have to consider and plan for the future of our students and the communities themselves. It is also a very fragile thing to have so many elected officials representing so many differing constituent views to discuss such matters with no formal requirement for anything to be done. Thus, as a result, our communities saw the positive, fruitful results this meeting achieved. Unfortunately, they then quickly saw two boards make the decision to withdraw from further discussions without formal input from their constituents or even time for their constituents to consider the proposals. A decision to consolidate does not have to be made today but to make a decision to withdraw without community input, careful consideration and proper inter-community discussion is to ignore problems facing our communities and blindly deprive our students of a chance for even better education.
It is our hope that community members will read this and realize the benefits such a merger will bring to communities, students’ academic and extracurricular offerings, and taxpayers. At the very least, this is a request for everyone to ensure they and their elected officials take careful consideration and engage in meaningful communication with others about the future of our schools and the students they serve.
- Brian and Bryce Frey of Tilden
Reminder: Letters To The Editor are not the opinion of Pitzer Digital, Antelope County News, The Orchard News or its staff.
Letters To The Editor are not the opinion of Pitzer Digital LLC, Antelope County News, The Orchard News or its staff.