By Tim Leeds
The KG, Blue Sky, J-I and Chester school districts are examining the possibility of consolidating into one or two large school districts.
School district officials said they are motivated by declining enrollments, the sluggish agricutural economy and a declining tax base.
But they said any plan would have to result in the students being better off.
"The final outcome has to show that it can improve education in order for that to be viable," said Tom Bangs, an Inverness parent who has been attending meetings on the issue. "I don't think there's a lot of point in going through consolidation unless it can improve education. That's the number one issue."
School board members have been discussing the idea for about a month. On Monday a subcommittee formed by the school boards of the four districts agreed to look at the cost of hiring a consultant to study the question.
"We just want to have them come up with a couple of different scenarios, how the consolidation would work by the numbers," said Larry Hendrickson, a member of the Chester board.
The districts' boards will meet in the next week, and if hiring a consultant is affordable and the boards approve the action, the study could be moving forward in a few weeks, he said.
"The consultant is a two-edged sword," said KG Superintendent John Ballard. "It would give everybody an unbiased opinion to what is most cost-effective, but the cost for a consultant detracts from the students' education."
The likely outcome of consolidation, if it is recommended by the consultant and approved by the districts, would be to create two K-12 schools to serve the area covered by the four districts, with an extra elementary school a possibility, Hendrickson said. The four districts serve 622 students and have a total of nine schools.
The main reason for examining consolidation is a combination of declining enrollment, funding and the quality of education, he said.
"We have to do what's right for the kids and what's right for the taxpayers," he added.
Ballard said people in the districts seem to support investigating consolidation, but actual support or opposition will depend on the final proposal. People want to make sure they have looked at the best options, he said.
"I think people realize our situation is not real positive economically," he said. "People are just realistic."
Ballard said he thinks people are satisfied with the quality of Hi-Line schools and want to prevent the quality from dropping.
"They're being proactive rather than reactive," he said.
Lauri Chvilicek, who farms near Gildford with her husband, Charles, said she would be for consolidation, depending on what is recommended.
"In the past, we've talked about consolidation but it wasn't a have-to situation," she said. "Now, it's getting to be more of a necessity."
Chvilicek, who has children in the sixth- and eighth-grades and a 2-year-old entering the system in a few years, said transportation will be a major issue, although it won't make much difference for her family. Her children already ride the bus for an hour, which is the maximum allowed by state law.
Bangs said transportation will have to be looked at closely.
"You can get to the point where your schools are too far apart to make the busing work adequately," he said.
An earlier round of consolidation created the current school districts, with Kremlin and Gildford consolidating in the early 1970s, followed by Joplin and Inverness and Hingham and Rudyard. Bob Chvilicek, who is Charles Chvilicek's uncle, said consolidation was not a new idea even then.
"In the early '50s they were talking about consolidation," he said.