Considering consolidation: Losing a school (Fox 25)

By Phil Cross At statehood, there were more than thousand school districts scattered across the state. Today that number is a little more than 500 and it could shrink more as more schools find it difficult to make ends meet. But when it comes to combining school districts, it is not just school buildings that can become abandoned.

“It hurt,” Francis Shelton said about the school closing down in Boley.

Shelton is now the mayor of the small community where Oklahoma history was made. She went to school in Boley starting in the fourth grade and has called Boley home ever since. “It was lively. I couldn’t wait till Saturday evenings when everybody would be over town.”

The rural school could not keep up. In 2007 the district voted to close the high school. By 2010, the elementary doors were closed. One of Shelton’s major concerns now is working to keep the rest of the town from following the school. “It was kind of a blow to the community. It had an effect on our economy because people when they would come to different events at the school, spent money in the community.”

In Boley’s case, there was no mandate to close. It was a local decision to close the doors and move students to neighboring districts, but that did not make the loss any easier for those who grew up as Boley Bears.

“When you lose your school you lose your school you lose your basis for being almost,” Shelton said.

With more than 500 school districts in the state some have questioned if more schools consolidated could the money saved give a much needed boost to education funding.

“You can save a little bit of money from that and honestly it is something that is happening the school districts have pretty steadily gone down in the past decade or two,” said Gene Perry with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Perry said consolidation is not the end all solution to the state’s education problems.

“The biggest issue is we are really not investing at a level that we need to support those people,” Perry said, “Oklahoma has had, since 2008 when the recession kicked in, the largest per pupil cuts in the country to education.”

“Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever defined what underfunding is,” said Byron Schlomach of the newly formed public policy research group The 1889 Institute. Schlomach said without a definition of underfunding or ‘fully funded’ it is difficult to assess the true monetary needs of public education.

“It is quite possible with the level of funding we have right now to get a quality education,” Schlomach said. He sees school choice as the answer to fixing education, because it would introduce competition which would make public schools more efficient. “If you look at charter schools in general they are much less top heavy.”

The Oklahoma Policy Institute says consolidating schools or even consolidating administration costs would not increase Oklahoma’s education spending rank or improve educational outcomes. “There’s not an easy fix to this that doesn’t involve finding more money,” Perry said.

However most education watchers agree money alone won’t necessarily fix failing schools, which is why letting parents choose schools is appealing to many.

“Public education is ripe for disruption and probably the best way to fundamentally change things…is through school choice,” Schlomach said.

“We need to support all kids and we need to support the school districts who are responsible for the kids who get left behind,” Perry warned of school choice, but said creative classrooms are a necessary part of the educational future in Oklahoma.

However, if a school can’t afford teachers, technology or the turnover they’re seeing now the choice may be made for parents.

As Boley knows all too well, coming back is much harder than getting knocked down.

“What we’ve really done is lost our children and that is what keeps a town alive,” Shelton said.

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