OLD TOWN, Md. -- While most of the nation is seeing a record rise in student populations, rural areas in 22 states have been losing students, laying off teachers and closing schools. Downsizing a school system -- a process known as consolidation -- is a wrenching experience for the communities involved, causing all kinds of political and emotional turmoil.
Allegany County, Md., a scenic patchwork of Blue Ridge mountain farm towns in a corner of the state wedged between Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, is a case in point. Faced with a dwindling tax base, declining student enrollment and a $1.9 million budget shortfall, its Board of Education voted 3-2 on April 24 to restructure or shut down eight of 24 schools, leaving the sprawling, sparsely populated eastern part of the county with no high schools or middle schools.
It was a bitter blow to a region of Maryland that has the state's lowest median income, second highest rate of child abuse and neglect and second highest number of referrals to the juvenile courts. But Board of Education Vice President Tim Woodring says he and his colleagues had no choice.
"We were facing huge budget shortfalls and looking at having significant damage done to the curriculum if we didn't do something," Woodring told Stateline.org.
To call the school board's decision controversial would be a gross understatement. Within days, the county polarized. Families from Barton, Flintstone, Mt. Savage and Oldtown, four of the towns losing schools, hired lawyers to try to block it.
"We are totally against sending our kids over the mountain," says Oldtown resident Georgene McLaughlin, referring to a plan to bus Oldtown students to larger schools in Cumberland, Md. "It is not the distance to Cumberland, it is the mountain's windy roads and it is the injustice we pay taxes too it is just unfair and unjust."
The main hope of McLaughlin and others like her is that the Maryland State Board of Education will order a one-year delay of the school board's decision pending a school performance audit. But opponents know any reprieve would be temporary. In the last 30 years, the county's student population has declined by more than 40 percent. It is expected to decline further over the next decade, making school closures inevitable.
Nearly 60 percent of the nation's school districts are rural, but they teach only 20 percent of the total student population, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Of the 22 states that have seen rural schools wither and die in recent years, Maryland is not the worst example. Louisiana, Idaho, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming have been the hardest hit .
In the face of declining enrollment and revenues, many rural districts are plagued by rising special education and health insurance costs. Rural areas are more sensitive to the cost of special education than generally more affluent urban districts because the federal government underfunds the states (currently paying one-fifth of its commitment), leaving localities to pick up the shortfall.
The spiraling cost of health insurance is yet another factor in rural school closures. "Last year was a bad year health-wise," says Dee Truesdell, a school board member who was on the losing side of the consolidation vote. The board had planned on a 12 percent increase in health insurance costs, but got hit with a 26 percent hike. Truesdell attributes $900,000 of the $1.9 million budget deficit to insurance alone.
Allegany County's Board of Education felt further pinched by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening's push to give teachers statewide a five percent pay hike. Under Glendening's voluntary plan, localities would have to come up with four percent of the increase and the state would contribute one percent.
Teachers in Allegany have the lowest starting pay in the state and the board planned a two- percent increase. Compliance with the governor's plan would mean doubling the increase.
Some Midwest states have acted to keep rural schools open in the face of dwindling local tax bases and declining student enrollments by giving rural school districts more state money. They include Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Maryland House Speaker Casper Taylor (D), who represents Allegany County in the state legislature, appealed to Glendening for a one-time, $1 million dollar grant to save the schools until the county finished a performance audit that would guide restructuring. But the promise of an extra $1 million failed to sway the school board vote.
Two of the five board seats are up for election in November, and consolidation foes vow retribution at the polls. But Truesdell says that it will take a change in the local-state school financing mix to solve the problem.
"After doing all this, we will have saved so little money that in a couple of years we will have to close more schools.