Oklahoma public school officials say they are reluctant to consolidate

Oklahoma legislators and rural school officials have different views on consolidating schools and the impending effects it would have on students and budgets.
BY SARAH BOSWELL sboswell@opubco.com Modified: July 27, 2012 at 8:36 pm •  Published: July 29, 2012
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“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.”



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