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Combining More Than Just Classes

May 15, 2012, 10:00 PM by Nicole Winters

Combining More Than Just Classes
HURLEY, SD -

More KELOLAND communities are seeing their schools dissolve or consolidate. The Viborg and Hurley districts will make that change next school year; a tough move for the small communities.

Tucked inside a bar on Hurley's main street, is a group of long-time residents catching up on the latest events over a cup of coffee. A hot topic of conversation is the change coming to the town's school.

"I hate the thoughts of Hurley not being a school by itself anymore," Hurley resident Sharon Christensen said.

Christensen graduated with 22 others from Hurley in 1959. A class of 23 may sound small but compared to this year's graduating class of just four it was quite large.

"We haven't had a class quite this small before.  I think we had a class of seven or eight before.  This is by far our smallest group," English teacher Amy Smith said.

Smith has been with the district for six years and is also a Hurley alumnus.  She has seen the classes go from small to smaller. That's why Hurley will no longer stand on its own after this year.

"Mostly because of declining enrollments; probably there are fewer kids in Hurley, there was that sense.  But Viborg is also losing students," Viborg Hurley Superintendent Jerry Joachim said.

The two districts already share some resources such as Superintendent Jerry Joachim, two principals and sports teams. But the consolidation will mean each town will no longer have K-12 classes. The elementary and high school will be in Viborg, the middle school will be in Hurley.

"It’s a huge undertaking because there are so many things that are not the same," Joachim said.

It means transportation, food services, and teachers will have to merge. The plan is also to eliminate nine positions, though three took early retirement.

Smith will stay on as an English teacher but she has to box up and move to her new classroom ten minutes away in Viborg.

"You could feel a little tension; everyone was kind of worrying.  It was a tough time," Smith said.

Viborg and Hurley aren't alone in this transition. From 2002 to 2012 the number of school districts has dropped from 174 to 151. A law put into place in 2007 requires districts under 100 students to dissolve or consolidate in order to receive state funding. Since that law took effect, the number of districts has dropped from 165 to 151.

"If you have less than seven to eight kids per class you're probably not offering those kids the educational opportunities they need in not only yesterday's world but today's world," State Senator Phyllis Heineman said.

Heineman was part of a committee that studied the issue of state aid and enrollment. She says with more small towns seeing a decline in enrollment, a number had to be set to make sure students were getting the learning experiences needed but also make funding more efficient, because with fewer students, a school becomes more expensive to run.

Take the 2010-2011 school year. Viborg had 249 students, which breaks down to $7,509 per student.
Hurley had 117 students with a cost of $11,578 per student.

"When you can put that funding together and have one science teacher, one chemistry teacher, one physics teacher, you open up opportunities for kids," Heineman said.

Because of that, she thinks this could be a trend rural communities continue to see. Opening up more opportunities is something Smith says she agrees with.

"I was really glad to hear it; both communities will benefit from the consolidation. The kids will benefit; it needs to be done. The Hurley school was getting too small to stay afloat on their own," Smith said.

Nonetheless, it's still never easy to get everyone on board.

"I think every time a community has a sense of losing their school, losing their identity, they really kind of hesitate on that," Joachim said.

But, it's a change they're forced to accept.

"It’s just a change of times and it has to be," Hurley resident Annette Olson said.

"It’s sad; it really is," Christensen said.

Hurley residents say they see a few reasons for declining enrollment. One is that area farms are much bigger now so there are fewer children in the area.  More people are also commuting to bigger cities.

Heineman says student achievement was also a factor in the study relating to the 2007 law. She says test scores showed high school students in larger districts did better than the smallest districts. That could be due to larger districts having more upper-level course opportunities.

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