Ghost towns come to the minds of rural Kansans when they hear talk of closing the local high school.
Small and rural schools are bristling at a legislative audit released last week that estimates the state could save $129 million a year by consolidating Kansas' 293 districts to 152.
Schools often are the top employers in small towns, said Remington-Whitewater superintendent Jim Regier.
"The same things would happen in those towns as they would if Boeing and Spirit left Wichita," he said.
Legislators say they have no immediate plans to force consolidations on districts. The last time Kansas school districts were mandated to consolidate was in the 1960s, slashing the number from almost 2,800 to about 300.
Since then the state has commissioned studies on school consolidation, but so far districts can only combine voluntarily with the approval of voters.
The most recent Legislative Division of Post Audit report could be used against consolidation as a cost-saving measure, said Rep. John Grange, R-El Dorado.
The report suggests savings to the state of $15 million if it consolidated 27 districts, closed 50 school buildings and eliminated 230 teaching and administrative positions. It estimated savings of $129 million a year by consolidating 141 districts, closing 304 school buildings and having 1,532 fewer teachers and administrators.
Many individual consolidations would reduce school spending less than $500,000. That does not include the potential short-term expense of merging school districts.
Most of the savings for the state would come from making fewer payments for low-enrollment districts, the audit stated. Schools with lower enrollment — less than 1,622 students districtwide —get additional state money.
"What was interesting is that post audit showed that there is really, proportionally, not that much money to be saved," Grange said, adding he was surprised there weren't more savings.
"I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense to pursue it."
'This is home'
Remington High School, sitting on Butler County's western edge, is the school Courtney Claassen's mother went to.
Courtney is now student council president, just as her mother was, and she will graduate this year with roughly 45 other students.
Her father is a school board member.
And she plans to return after attending Kansas State University.
"This is home," Courtney said. "I like knowing there are people here who care about me. I'd like to see their kids grow up. I'd like to see how things change here."
But one change she wouldn't want to see is the closing of Remington High School.
In one scenario, the Remington-Whitewater district would be combined with the Towanda-based Circle district, leaving the smaller 185-student Remington High School most vulnerable to closing.
Combining high schools would reduce the number of students who could participate on athletic teams and in drama, debate, cheerleading and other activities, residents said.
Another possible consolidation in the audit is the Renwick and Cheney districts in western Sedgwick County, which would close two of the three high schools in those districts and one of the four elementary schools. It would also cut about 14 teachers and one principal and make one of the superintendents part time.
The audit projects the consolidation would save roughly a half-million dollars from the $21.3 million it costs to run the two districts separately.
Even closing one of the elementary schools in the two districts would cause pain, said Tom Almstrom, superintendent of the 800-student Cheney district.
"Every little town wants to have their kids right next to them," he said.
Cost vs. benefit
There are many logistical obstacles to combining rural districts, administrators said.
State law requires school districts to offer busing to students who live more than 2 1/2 miles from school.
Dan Peters, superintendent of the Renwick district, which has about 1,940 students, said he'd be concerned about long bus rides for students in a larger district.
Some students in the Renwick district, which covers 200 square miles, already spend an hour on the bus, he said. Adding the Cheney district would require adding buses and routes, which also would add costs, Peters said.
The Remington-Whitewater district encompasses 253 square miles, and it buses 80 percent of its 500 students.
By comparison, the urban Wichita district — the largest in the state at roughly 50,000 students — is 152 square miles and provides busing to less than half its students.
Closing schools would mean the remaining schools would need to add classrooms to accommodate more students.
Circle High wouldn't be able to take on Remington's almost 200 students without an expansion, Circle superintendent Jim Keller said.
"With consolidation, it's not a quick fix — it's five years down the road," he said.
"It's more costly initially."
The legislative audit stated school district consolidation is a long-term investment, and districts would need state help in building more classrooms as they close schools.
In Renwick and Cheney, the superintendents said none of the existing high schools — Andale, Garden Plain and Cheney — is big enough to absorb students from the other two.
"If nothing else, we would have to drastically modify one of the high schools, or build a brand new one," Peters said. "Either way it's going to be a lot of money."
School districts also have construction projects under way financed by bonds that residents are still paying off. They fear a new bond issue would be needed to add classrooms while they're paying for improvements to the old ones.
The report suggested the state provide districts money for new construction.
"You look at the headlines, and say, 'Yeah, why don't we do that? A no-brainer.' But when you look behind the facts, I think the cost-benefit isn't there," said Dave Reichenberger, an Andale farmer.
"What we would gain in relation to what we'd lose would be way out of whack."
A way of life
For residents of rural schools, district consolidation threatens not just their education, but also a way of life carried on by their families for generations.
"We're talking about commerce in rural settings," said Brandon Patry, president of the Whitewater Chamber of Commerce and alumnus of Remington High. "Many businesses are hanging on. The removal of a large employer might be the last string for some businesses."
Residents of Andale and Garden Plain said their schools are the livelihoods of their towns.
"If they even think about it, you'll have such an uprising around here you wouldn't believe it," said Jim Molitor, who has a ready-mix concrete company in Andale. "Morale would be horrible. It would hurt the businesses. It would hurt the housing. I can't imagine any pluses."
The idea of consolidation has been floated before in the Renwick district, where both Andale and Garden Plain have their own high schools. Voters in 1994 overwhelmingly trounced a proposal for a bond issue that would have financed a new centralized high school in the district.
Don Jaax, a veterinarian in Andale, said the town "just about had bloodlettings" at the time. His mother was a school board member and she received threats, he said.
"It got real nasty, and it'll get that way again," Jaax said.
Rep. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, thought people would react negatively to being told to consolidate districts. People identify with their schools and have shown support for them by approving bond issues, he said.
"I do think they would want to look at everything to save money if you could save enough money..." Kerschen said. "But at this point, without a detailed plan of how it is done, I think it would be tough to support."
Incentives for dwindling districts to consolidate are already in place, school leaders said.
The Kansas State Board of Education approved requests last week from four districts to merge into two. The consolidations must still be approved by voters in those districts on April 6.
Claflin superintendent Jane Oeser, whose district would merge with Lorraine, said declining enrollment and dwindling state funds led to the consolidation proposal.
Her district has been losing students for at least 10 years, she said. The high school had 26 students graduate last year, and the district has only six kindergartners this year.
The district is financially sound, Oeser said, but, "We're just afraid we'd have to cut curricula and programs. We want our kids to have choices."
It isn't known how the schools in the two districts would be used under a consolidation, she said. All facilities would be kept open the first year while the matter is studied.
Just because the districts have volunteered to consolidate doesn't mean their voters will approve.
"It's a very emotional, difficult decision," Oeser said. "All the answers aren't out there yet for our patrons.
"I don't think you'd ever have a consolidation that would go perfectly."
Lorraine superintendent Lenny Gales predicted a close vote.
"It's been an emotional issue the last two months, and it will be the other two months," he said.
Nineteen school districts have voluntary consolidated or dissolved since 2002.
Several have been in rural northeast Kansas, where enrollments have fallen rapidly with the total population.
"Survival is what it was," said Bill Walker, superintendent of Rock Hills district, which was the result of a voluntary consolidation between the White Rock and Mankato school districts in 2006.
The consolidation plan took about a year, Walker said, as both boards agreed it was the only way they could afford to operate either district. Voters approved the consolidation 82 percent to 18 percent.
Among other incentives, consolidated districts receive state funding as if they were separate districts for the first three years, ensuring a relatively stable source of revenue.
When districts with few students combine, for example, they could lose state funding for districts with low enrollments if such incentives were not available.
"The incentive ... was one of the deciding factors of the vote," Walker said.
The resulting boost in state money has allowed the 310-student district to save money for the time when the incentives expire and the schools face the full brunt of state cuts. Walker said Rock Hills has the maximum allowed in its contingency fund.
One school was closed, and six staff positions were cut, but he said the consolidation saved just enough to keep the districts afloat.
A neighboring district, Jewell, was invited, but didn't join the consolidation. It dissolved last year, giving Rock Hills a chunk of its territory worth $5 million, plus an infusion of students.
The report doesn't recommend forcing schools to consolidate, but it stated incentives for voluntary consolidations could be increased.
Even if the consolidations are labeled "voluntary" by the state, legislators' decision to cut school funding is forcing districts to consider options they never have, Walker said.
"Ultimately, the decision should be local," he said. "Right now it isn't."