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January 22, 2016 - Kim Moore [see other posts]

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Rural Options--First Installment: Preserve and Protect

Note: this is the first in a multi-part series on strategies for responding to the issues of rural population decline in Kansas communities.

In 1965 I went with my father, mother and the then Superintendent of Public Instruction for Elk County, Ethel Yantis, to Topeka on a hasty trip. Just ahead of the statutory deadline for unification plans, Dad and the Superintendent were filing a paper, authorized by the relevant school boards, to remove Longton Public Schools from the Elk County unification plan and Elk City Public Schools from the Montgomery County unification plan. The two arch enemies across county lines (Lions and Red Devils) were putting their school fortunes together rather than have them controlled by Howard and Independence. Across Kansas several other communities which were not county seats pulled out of county-wide planning and created intra- and inter- county districts. The likely motivation was the same: avoid the county seat from getting all the schools. 

Today, fifty years later, there are still two school districts in Elk County.

“West Elk Public Schools is located just outside the city limits of Howard, Kansas. The district includes the communities of Elk Falls, Howard, Moline, Severy and several townships encompassing 540 square miles. West Elk is a 2A school with 346 students in pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade.” [http://westelk.us/

Elk Valley District [http://www.usd283.org/] has K-12 facilities in Longton with 151 students. The incorporated territory of Elk City proper was moved from Elk Valley many years ago by petition into the Independence district leaving the rural territory of the old Elk City district primarily in Elk Valley. There is no school in Elk City today. Schools have been closed in all West Elk incorporated communities except Howard. The school boards of Longton and Elk City correctly assessed the future. Inside the larger county seat dominated school district, all the schools would eventually be located there.

As I discussed in my October 28th blog, the population of rural Kansas continues a 100-year plus decline. We are getting more and more counties with less than 5000 persons. Volume becomes an increasing issue whether students, patients, customers, church members, or postal patrons. Customized friendly models of support for 1980’s and 1990’s numbers—cost-based reimbursement for hospitals, weighted payments for fewer students, etc.—are increasingly inadequate for the new still lower numbers. Tax-supported subsidies beyond the standard reimbursement and revenue sharing approaches are necessary in many cases. Delivery of quality is difficult with recruitment of professionals, infrequent experience with particular situations, and maintenance of specialized equipment for very few episodes.

There appear to be four general approaches (sometimes used in tandem) for responding to the issue of rural decline:

                              1. Preserve and protect
                              2. Modify and affiliate
                              3. Regionalize/consolidate
                              4. Innovate

My Elk County story illustrated a combination of 1 and 3. The great desire to preserve a traditional school system with some K-12 structures in the community led to the Longton/Elk City action. Together these two historic rivals could preserve schools in both communities. Adversity produces strange bedfellows…or something along those lines.

“Preserve and protect” frequently has costs which are not readily apparent.  This strategy will often require increased local public dollars to fund capital needs and to subsidize operational costs which are not going to be supported by the existing general revenue/public reimbursement framework—probably the reason there is a question about survival in the first place. One economic development person noted at a recent meeting that keeping “what is” does have a hidden opportunity cost. Increased public tax support will go for this structure/activity and not to something else (lost opportunity). 

It is very hard to argue with rural residents that the loss of the school, the loss of the hospital, the loss of the post office, etc. will not mean less and worse instead of more and better. Consequently, the first and preferred strategy for rural Kansas is “preserve and protect.” The fundamental problem with “preserve and protect” is that the forces challenging the situation have not been changed; the possibility of complete loss of function remains real and could be abrupt and total. Still, schools have continued in Longton for 50 years due to a hasty Topeka trip to “preserve and protect.” We will consider other strategies in future blogs.

Lose the School, Lose the Town?
Incorporated cities related to Elk County School Consolidation
(Unification effective in the late 1960s)

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2014 est.

Howard

1017

918

965

815

808

687

642

K-12 facilities

Moline

698

555

553

473

457

371

344

No school facilities

Elk Falls

179

124

151

122

112

107

101

No school facilities

Grenola

349

290

335

256

231

216

203

No school facilities

Severy

492

384

447

357

359

259

241

No school facilities

Longton

401

304

396

389

394

348

322

K-12 facilities

Elk City

498

432

404

334

305

325

314

No school facilities

                 
Source: Kansas Statistical Abstract 2014
                 
West Elk contains Howard, Moline, Elk Falls, and Severy (Greenwood County)
Elk Valley contains Longton
Elk City (Montgomery County) is in the Independence school district
Grenola (Elk County) is in the Central/Burden school district