LIMA — Just 22 students graduated from New Lima High School this year, but the 400-seat auditorium was full.
Family and community members crowded in to support one of the smallest graduating classes in one of the smallest districts in a state that ranks near the top nationally for its high number of school districts per capita.
New Lima, with 266 students, is one of 521 districts statewide. There are 10 school districts in Seminole County alone, a largely rural area of just 25,000 people 60 miles east of Oklahoma City.
As lawmakers look for ways to reduce the more than $2 billion spent yearly on common education, the idea of consolidating school districts often is suggested as a way to reduce costs, but that's a tough sell in Lima.
“Most of the kids that graduate at a school like New Lima have lived there all their life,” said Dewayne Streater, just-retired president of the New Lima School Board.
He shook hands with each student who walked across the stage at graduation. He has seen them grow up during his 13 years as president.
“The rural schools are really needed,” Streater said. “They are mainly the hub of the community. I don't see any way in the world that consolidation should really be an issue.”
In a nutshell
Lawmakers hesitate to support legislation that could close schools in the communities they serve, said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“It becomes an intense constituency issue,” he said. “In these little towns, the only thing holding the place together is the school, the post office and maybe a grocery. It's more than eight-man football.”
Gov. Mary Fallin said last month that school districts will be encouraged in the coming months to consolidate or share administrative services to free up more money for the classroom. Some lawmakers are starting to draft school redistricting proposals for next year's legislative session.
The budget for the state Education Department is $2.3 billion, or about a third of the state's $6.8 billion overall budget.
Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, has proposed an interim study to look at creating “administrative efficiencies” such as sharing personnel. He's also a financial planner and president of Regent Financial Services Inc. in Tulsa.
“People often think, ‘If I only made more money …. One factor is increasing income, but the other is decreasing expenses,” Stanislawski said.
State Sen. Harry Coates, R-Seminole, said he thinks there are too many schools all over the state, not just in Seminole County. He also thinks superintendents' salaries need to be reconsidered. The average superintendent's salary statewide is $99,337. The average superintendent's salary in Seminole County is $93,310.
“I see the dying communities continuing to struggle because their pupil numbers will continue to go down and administrative costs will not,” Coates said. “Many schools collapse under their own weight.”
Oklahoma is No. 8 nationally for number of school districts per capita, according to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent information available.
With 521 school districts, Oklahoma has more than Arkansas (239) and Oregon (197) combined. Oklahoma's schools employ 84,740 people, compared with 74,311 in Arkansas, 72,542 in Iowa and 59,682 in Oregon.
There have been about 100 school consolidations and annexations in Oklahoma since 1977.
It's difficult to make blanket school consolidation reforms in a state where there are so many rural communities, state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said. She encourages districts to share administrators, which would eliminate some positions and some overhead costs.
“There is no one law we can pass in terms of consolidation that would be a positive thing for the state,” Barresi said. “I think it really is a matter of the local folks getting together and saying, ‘Is this really how we want to spend our tax dollars to educate our kids?'”
When she talks about districts sharing administrators, she is talking about people such as Larry Larmon. He split time as superintendent at Osage, where he earned about $80,000, and Spavinaw, where he earned about $30,000.
“We don't want to lose any of our small schools,” Larmon said. “They're there for a reason: those communities. It's extremely important to them.”
When to consolidate
Schools can consolidate for various reasons, including when school leaders realize they don't have enough money or students to stay open, or the state identifies a problem with the school's leadership, finances or academic performance.
The most recent forced annexation took place at the end of the 2010-11 school year when Boynton-Moton school district was forced to close, sending students to Midway school district or Haskell school district.
Boynton-Moton in north central Oklahoma was the subject of a state audit from 2007 to 2009, which found several cases of mismanaged funds and other violations. A few highlights included the fact that the school was operating with insufficient funds, teachers were often paid without contract or in excess of their contract, and the superintendent at one point received mileage compensation for travel to and from his home, even though that benefit was not included in his contract.
Mary McElhaney, a teacher and librarian at Midway, said it was a huge adjustment since most of the Boynton students weren't performing at the same level as their new classmates.
“It was like they weren't used to learning and being expected to respond and do well,” McElhaney said. “I would give them an assignment, and they would act like, ‘We have to do all of it? We have to read the whole book?'”
John Truesdell, superintendent of Midway Public Schools, said he was happy to add 47 students to his roster last year.
“We need to look at finding ways to grow,” Truesdell said. “We don't even have a convenience store in this community.”
He also drives the school bus, mows the school property, helps paint the building and announces at basketball and football games.
“We're going to do what needs to be done,” he said. “You just put on different hats.”
View from the road
Todd Russell, a convenience store owner who has lived near Midway all his life, serves on the school board.
“With no kids coming in, the community's getting smaller,” Russell said. “There were more people here when I was a kid.”
He's a project manager for a construction firm and does a lot of traveling for his job. He said he doesn't want to see the Midway community fail like some others he's seen during his time on the road.
“I do a lot of windshield time,” he said. “I see lots of communities go to waste.”
He's afraid that as schools close, so will the towns around them.
“What can you do? Businesses don't come to small communities,” he said. “We're not going to move backwards.”
Closing a school
Two years ago, Steve Richert asked community members to support closing his school district due to low attendance and a waning reserve budget.
“It was a loss that nobody wanted,” said the superintendent of Washita Heights school district in Corn, about 80 miles west of Oklahoma City.
Richert's connection to the school started when he was a child.
“That's where I started my educational career with my mother as my first-grade teacher,” he said. “Not only that, but my brother was the principal there at one time.”
With just 99 students, the school consolidated in late April with Cordell Public Schools.
Side effects to mergers such as this are added transportation costs and longer bus rides for students. Adding a new bus route in the district meant an extra $11,000 in fuel costs, Cordell Superintendent Brad Overton said.
Like other abandoned schools, Washita Heights was placed on an auction block. The building was bought by a local heating and air conditioning business.
When asked what's left in Corn, population 503, Richert mentioned a cafe, a Mennonite church, a post office, a roofing company and a nursing home.
“I encourage small districts to hang on as long as they can,” he said. “There is a sense of pride that everybody wants to hang on to. There's something there that when the school closes, seemingly the town folds.”