Shrinking Schools Adjust to Consolidation, Co-Ops

The kids have no problem with it most of the time. It’s the hurt feelings and the problems the parents and grandparents have.

- Howells-Dodge Superintendent Jeff Walburn

Enrollments are declining, but school pride is as strong as ever.

Perhaps no school district knows that better than Howells-Dodge. The neighboring towns on Highway 91 officially combined their school districts in the 2012-2013 school year… and it was heated, to say the least.

“The political issues there… those are the rivalries typically,” Howells-Dodge Superintendent Jeff Walburn said. “The kids have no problem with it most of the time. It’s the hurt feelings and the problems the parents and grandparents have.”

A Nebraska News Service article from 2013 recounted stories of bar fights and vandalism during consolidation talks. Walburn wasn’t there at the time, but has been in administration at five different consolidated schools. He says it can take generations for some towns to accept their change. He shares a story from his bookkeeper at Sumner-Eddyville-Miller which consolidated in the 60s.

“She belonged to a woman’s club in one of the communities and there was another lady that made everyone sing the old Eddyville fight song because she had never accepted the Sumner-Eddyville-Miller school district,” Walburn said.

Walburn says the financial burdens can be as difficult to handle as declining enrollment. He said it’s common in small districts to budget $15,000 per student and there’s nothing they can do about it. That can wear on taxpayers.

“Because you can maintain a school as long as the taxpayers want to pay it,” Walburn said. “But when your resources are financing the district, which most small schools (don’t receive) state aid.”

Then there’s the additional prong of needing to update facilities on that limited budget. Newman Grove Public Schools is doing studies on replacing their elementary school which was built in 1920. Superintendent Mikal Shalikow says the town is experiencing a boom and wants to keep its school in town.

“We have a very strong community,” Shalikow said. “They want to have a school here in Newman Grove and I think it’s very important for them to do that.”

The district did decide to co-op its sports with Boone Central in 2011-12. Shalikow says it’s tough to give up your mascot, but it’s easier when you see it benefit the kids.

“It’s tough to not have your sports on your own,” Shalikow said. “But when you look at the opportunities our kids are able to have underneath the Boone Central-Newman Grove name, it’s a little easier to take because we know we’re giving our kids the opportunities.”

Walburn agrees, that when coping with problems facing small schools, it’s best to just follow the students’ lead.

“We’re all Jaguars and there is no differentiating,” Walburn said. “You walk down when we have classes or you come to a ballgame and look at the parents and grandparents at our games, we’re all Jaguars there’s no ‘there’s Howells sitting over there and there’s Dodge sitting over there.’”

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