By T.J. Pyette
Two consultants hired to provide insight on a possible consolidation of two Hi-Line school districts looked to the community for input Monday night.
They didn't get much.
A crowd of more than 100 residents fell silent when Rich Shaffer and Harry Erickson of Bozeman asked for public comment on the possible consolidation.
Shaffer and Erickson, a consulting duo with more than 70 combined years of experience in education, were hired by the Kremlin Gildford and Blue Sky school boards to make a recommendation on where the high school and elementary school should be located if the two districts consolidate.
The school boards had agreed that each district would retain one or the other, and when they hired Schaffer and Erickson in October, they agreed to bring the pair's recommendation to the public for a vote.
The high school should be located in Rudyard, said Schaffer.
"We could not find one compelling reason to put the high school in Gildford," Schaffer added.
Schaffer said his and Erickson's opinion on location was based on the number and size of classrooms, quality of athletic facilities, auxiliary and support facilities, lunch room capacity and available office space.
Schaffer said some of the factors the pair did not think were relevant to the study or that were equal in both towns were each town's business economy, geography in relation to other towns and where students live in relation to each school.
The boards' interest in consolidating the two districts stems from declining enrollment in both districts, a problem some community members say won't be fixed by consolidation.
"This could be just a short-term fix," said Mel Gomke, a longtime Kremlin resident. Gomke said he isn't opposed to the consolidation, but he hopes that the districts don't spend money building and remodeling after the consolidation because he thinks something else will have to be done within the next 10 years.
"We would have 92 students in a consolidated high school next year," Gomke said, referring to current enrollment numbers for both schools. "That number will drop to a total of 29 high school students by the year 2010." That's if both schools retain all the students currently enrolled.
With that much of a decline, he told the crowd, he thinks further consolidation will be necessary in the future.
Rudyard resident and farmer Merlin Wolery said that although he thinks additional steps may be inevitable, the current consolidation is "a logical move at this time."
Wolery said he would have supported the consolidation regardless of the consultants' recommendation on where the high school should be located.
"The more important question voters should ask is: What will we have if we don't consolidate? The answer is that very soon we will have a really poor situation in both schools," he said.
Wolery, a former Blue Sky school board member and former legislator, said a farming economy in rapid decline has led to a sparsely populated Hi-Line, which in turn has led to low school enrollment.
He doesn't foresee a change in that trend.
"We won't even keep all the students we have now. They are slowly moving out (of the area), and it's been dropping steadily for years," Wolery said.
Wolery also said incentive funding for consolidation is available and should be taken into consideration as it would mean additional funds for the next few years for a newly consolidated district.
"It could be a total of around $800,000 additional for the district," Wolery said.
KG Superintendent John Ballard said today that he recognizes that further consolidation might be necessary in the future, but he still thinks the current consolidation plan is viable and meets the needs of both districts.
KG school board member Dave Stevenson said he thought the meeting went well, although he had hoped that the recommendation would be to locate the high school in Gildford.
"Now we have a lot of work to do . We have to sell (the consolidation) to the public so they will vote for it in the spring."
Stevenson disagreed with the idea that the consolidation is only a short-term solution. "My personal feeling is that we could go on with two schools for a long time. We've gone for 30 years with two schools in KG."
Kremlin and Gildford consolidated in 1972 to form the KG district.
Blue Sky Superintendent Terry Grant said today that even with the projected further drop in student numbers, the current plan is good for now. "Let's go with this and wait to see if things change in the future," he said. "There are any number of factors that could cause enrollment to go up or down, but we can't let speculation hold us back from doing what needs to be done now," Grant added.
Grant said the current level of incentive funding for consolidation is good. Not knowing how that could change in the ongoing legislative session means that now is the time to consolidate.
Schaffer told the crowd that the decision on where to locate the schools was difficult, but it was not as difficult as the decisions that now face the community.
The issue will go to a public vote in the spring. If approved, the schools would spend one more year as separate districts and would consolidate for the 2004-2005 school year. The two current boards would oversee the consolidation jointly, and then a new board would be elected to govern the combined district.
"The meeting itself was a big step toward consolidation," Ballard said, "but we've just scratched the surface as far as the work goes."