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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, March 16, 2017 10:01 pm

Rural schools vital

Senate Bill 248 is an innocuous bill, to hear its supporters explain. Yes, it uses the frightening “consolidation” word in terms of school districts, but don’t worry – it’s not mandatory.

Forgive the supporters of small school corporations for being afraid. The legislation might simply address public debt and administrative functions, but they recognize the bill for what it represents – one more threat to Indiana’s smallest school districts and to the communities for which they are the lifeblood. If lawmakers want to overcome the state’s stagnant population growth and bolster Indiana’s economy, they can’t continue to give young people reasons to leave small towns and rural communities.

“My concern is it starts with a ‘may’ provision but the provision becomes a ‘shall,’” said Donnie Bowsman, superintendent of the 523-student Randolph Southern schools in Lynn. “I feel like every year I have to stand up and speak for public education. We provide a great education at a great tax rate.”

Bowsman testified against the bill in both the Senate and in the House Education Committee, where it was approved on a bipartisan 10-2 vote Tuesday. It earlier passed the Senate by a 30-18 vote. Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, whose district includes multiple small school districts, was among the no votes.

The bill is straightforward. It encourages public school districts to consolidate by offering a $500 per-pupil incentive. The money can be used for expenses associated with consolidation, for debt repayment or for salary bonuses to teachers. It is not mandatory, but it’s easy to see how continuing financial pressures on school districts could force districts to explore it.

Bowsman said that was the case seven years ago when Randolph Southern and Union School Corp. considered consolidation. Both school boards supported the effort until a public hearing found heated opposition.

“The school district is the center of our community,” he said, noting the district had a 100 percent graduation rate last year, in spite of the fact that half the students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. “It’s the place where people get together. Our kids get a personalized education here.”

J. Scott Turney, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, said his group took a neutral position on SB 248, but asked why it was necessary and shared the concern it would force some districts’ hands.

“We serve those kids that are part of the 14.8 million acres that Farm Bureau counts as farmland in Indiana,” he said. “They deserve an education just like everyone else. Their communities want an identity and they want economic development. You start taking away their schools, what is the incentive to stay?”

That’s the question lawmakers should be asking.

“Thriving Communities, Thriving State” was a project directed by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute two years ago. It looked at Indiana’s challenges from the perspective of urban areas, suburban and mid-sized communities, and rural/small communities.

“Perhaps the greatest demographic concern for many rural communities is the out-migration of rural youth to other places within the state and nation,” the report concluded, recommending “a strong pathway from pre-K through post-secondary is crucial to developing talent and economic success” there.