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Archive for Thursday, October 7, 1999

DISTRICTS IN DECLINE

October 7, 1999

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Many state school districts would say they are short on funds, but some districts may be facing extinction because they also are short on students.

Here's some food for thought for people who want to curb growth in the city of Lawrence.

According to a state education official, many towns in Kansas are losing population so fast that they may not be able to sustain their school districts. The example cited by Mark Tallman, assistant executive director for advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards, was Ness County, southwest of Hays.

The largest school district in the county, Ness City, expected a kindergarten class this year with fewer than 10 students. That's not many students, but it's a lot more than in the county's other four school districts, which didn't expect to enroll more than five kindergartners among them.

Education specialists extol the value of small classes, especially for children in primary grades, but many Kansas school districts are in danger of shrinking below a level at which they are financially viable. Districts can consolidate, but that may mean that even elementary students are attending schools many miles from their homes. Telenet courses can be beamed across the state to try to broaden course offerings to secondary schools, but are those students getting the best education possible?

Will some Kansas residents have to revert to the methods of their ancestors -- schooling at home or boarding their children in other towns to get them close enough to attend a public school?

This obviously is a serious problem for many Kansas communities. Farmers whose livelihoods are tied to their land may have to maintain their homes in remote parts of the state, but many small towns won't be able to survive once long-time elderly residents pass on. What family with children would move to a town without a school?

Tallman and the KASB are putting their emphasis on increased state funding for schools and showing how current budget cuts will hurt Kansas school districts, especially the smaller districts. But no amount of funding can preserve a school district in which there are no children.

It's a problem that, fortunately, is very foreign to Lawrence, which has seen steady growth both in the community and the school district. The problems of dealing with that growth seem minor compared with those faced by communities whose declining populations may soon drive their school districts out of business.

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