Marquette school closes despite 'a gallant effort'

MARQUETTE — As the school year comes to a close, final lessons learned by the Marquette Wolverines include just how loved the school is in the community.

A second lesson they will take with them as they move on to the larger Lindsborg Middle School and Smoky Valley High School will be: Even with the best efforts people don't always achieve their goals.

Faced with losing their junior high because of state budget cuts, the faculty, student body, local residents and alums from across the country put together a 10-day fundraising effort. They brought in $115,000 in pledges to save the junior high, which is housed with the town's elementary school.

While hugely successful, it wasn't enough. The $186,000 cut from the Smoky Valley Unified School District 400 had to be raised to keep the junior high open for another year. Calling the campaign the "Marquette Miracle," it was $71,000 short of the goal.

"It was a gallant effort," said Darryl Talbott, Marquette School's principal, and an alumnus of the school, as he sat in his office with a picture of a Wolverine, the school's mascot, above his head. "It's very tough."

The reality is grim. With projected state cuts next year, even if they had raised $186,000, they would have to do that every year, said Todd Graham, USD 400 president.

He and Mari Loder, both Marquette residents, were the two USD 400 school board members to vote no, against the five yes votes, in favor of closing the junior high.

"We've lost something near and dear," said Talbott, who added that while it was a tough call for the board to make, in the end it was a way to save as many jobs as possible. While several teachers had hours cut back, no one was laid off.

Marquette, with a population of 600 residents, has always been a community with strong survival instincts, said Mayor Allan Lindfors.

"How many towns in Kansas have had a free land giveaway to bring people to town with purpose of saving the school?" Lindfors said, referring to the land giveaway that began in May 2003 by Marquette Development Corp.

In 2004 there were 147 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Currently there are 122 students.

"We've survived up to this point, but the continual budget cuts force us to make this move," Talbott said. "The community will miss the activities. The Wolverines will no longer take the field."

The town faced this kind of loss back in 1985 when the high school closed, after the old building was condemned. At that time they consolidated with the towns of Lindsborg, Roxbury, Falun and Smolan and formed the Smoky Valley District High School.

Even after that, the small community has been passionate about its local school, supporting the junior high extracurricular activities, whether they had children in the district or not.

"Children are important to this community," said Cynthia Hulse, a junior high language arts teacher. She noted how adults whose children have moved away still attend the extracurricular events because maybe one of the children participating mowed their lawn or was in their Sunday school class.

The community's strong cheering section often finds more people in the bleachers of an away game than those of the home team they are playing.

Hulse admits she was hoping for a miracle with the silent auction.

"I thought we certainly had a chance," she said, with tears welling up in her eyes. "It shows how much the community thinks of Marquette to step up as they did from recent graduates to those 90 and above."

From the heroic effort she's hoping her students have learned by watching adults stand up for what they believe in, even when the odds are not in their favor.

"We don't like it at all," said eighth-grader Greg Elvin, whose dad graduated from Marquette. Greg auctioned himself off as a laborer to earn money to save his school.

All funds raised were either returned to the donor or went in to the Marquette Education Association's fund that has helped purchase items for the school such as new uniforms for band and sports.

Now it's transition time for the sixth through eighth graders of Marquette. Tuesday evening will be the last time an eighth-grade class graduates from this school. The 20 students were already planning to move on to Smoky Valley High School. But the 13 seventh-graders and 12 sixth-graders will also be recognized. They will be blended into classes four times larger than their current classes, Talbott said.