Darin Hannum was delighted when he was named superintendent of the Box Elder School District earlier this year. The longtime administrator succeeded Robert Heppner, who had been superintendent for 17 years.
But Hannum’s first few months have been among the most difficult in the district’s century-long history.
The problems have nothing to do with the Box Elder community, but decisions — and lack of decisions — in Washington, D.C.
The district depends on federal impact aid for about half of its operating budget. Impact aid is given to district’s that lose tax money because of tax-exempt federal land in the district. A good chunk of the Box Elder district is on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.
Because of Washington antics, the amount of impact aid has been slashed.
First there was sequestration, then the budget deadline, then the debt ceiling deadline. Impact aid kept taking a hit.
Box Elder was never awash in money, but these hits took a toll.
At least 17 people were slashed from the payroll, mostly classified workers — the ones who kept the school clean. cooked the lunches and did vital clerical work.
The staff faces difficulties.
“Not only have they seen their co-workers laid off, but they have had to pick up their duties,” he said.
He feels sorry for the board of education that has had to make the final decisions on layoffs as the only way to balance the budget.
“These people are not just their employees,” he said. “They are their family, their friends, their neighbors,” he said.
The employment picture for the laid-off people is not good, he said.
He’d like to be optimistic that the fiscal picture will rebound and the district will be able to hire back some of the workers, but he can’t be. There is no sign things will improve.
The biggest employer in the area is the tribal government, he said.
But the jobs picture there is just as bleak.
The tribal government has had to lay people off, scale back workers’ hours and furlough people, said Larry Denny, the Chippewa Cree tribe spokesman. The tribe is hoping that eventually all will be hired back, but they can’t make promises.
Box Elder people have taken the cuts in stride. All of this can lead people to hold the Washington government in disdain, he said. But even there, Hannum sees a sign of hope.
“I can’t say enough about Senator (Jon) Tester and his staff,” Hannum said.
Despite all the problems, he said, Box Elder residents are determined to move forward, he said.
But morale has been affected.
For Hannum, the worst came when he was at a meeting in Havre, he was asked if his athletes were coming to Havre because Box Elder school was closing.
The impact aid fiasco has affected schools around the country, and many rural districts have been forced into merger with neighboring districts to stay afloat.
Hannum says he can’t answer many questions about the fiscal plight, but there is one he states with total assurance.
Will Box Elder close?
No, he says.
“We talk about Bear pride here,” he said. “And there is Bear pride.”
Reporters who cover Box Elder know that’s the case.
It’s not unusual at graduation ceremonies to see people in the audience who have no children in the school. They just want to be part of the community celebration. It takes a village.
The entire community comes out to see football and basketball games.
The school is a vital part of the community. That’s true in most rural communities, and it’s more than true at Box Elder.
The community would lose a lot if Box Elder school were no longer there.
That’s why Hannum is committed to keeping the school alive and vital.
“Bear pride,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”
(John Kelleher is managing editor of the Havre Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 406-265-6795, ext. 17, or 406-390-0798.)