Town wins fight over school consolidation

? There are just two landmarks on the skyline of this tiny town in the sprawling high desert hills of northeastern Oregon: a grain elevator and the school.

The grain elevator is long abandoned. But when talk surfaced about shutting down the high school and busing students out of town, the ranchers, wheat farmers and retirees of Ione, population 350, looked into the future and didn’t like what they saw.

School consolidations have begun to seem like an inevitability in much of rural America, pushed by declining enrollment and states’ need to save money. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has launched a crusade to sell resistant rural residents on consolidation, and legislators in Oklahoma and Michigan have offered payoffs to districts that agree to consolidate. Idaho has just 52 school districts left, down from a high of 1,110.

Oregon, too, is in the grip of a school funding crisis that has forced districts statewide to lay off teachers and close early.

After a spree of consolidations in the mid-1990s that reduced the number of school districts by half, new legislation is under consideration that would examine the benefits of even more mergers among the state’s smaller school districts.

But the residents of Ione, fueled by grit and cash, persuaded the Legislature to allow them to secede from the Morrow County school district and form their own district.

Ione High School juniors, from left, Meghan McCabe, Natalie McElligott and Emily Key work on a science experiment during class in Ione, Ore. In an effort to keep the small town's high school from being shut down and its students bused 20 miles away, Ione residents persuaded the Oregon Legislature to create their own school district.

If Gov. Ted Kulongoski signs off on the plan, only Ione will be able to say what happens to its school. There was no word Saturday if the bill had yet been presented to Kulongoski; spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

“If this community were to have lost the high school, you might as well take away the businesses, close the doors and call it good,” said Joe McElligott, whose family has farmed in the area for generations.

The town of Heppner, a town of about 1,400 people some 17 bumpy miles way, would be happy to absorb the Ione middle and high schoolers — and their state funding.

Ione residents persuaded their state senator to sponsor the secession legislation, hired a lobbyist and a lawyer, and started calling and writing letters to other lawmakers.

“Several times during the past couple months, our lobbyist called and said, “Senator X said he gets it, he’s voting for it, and PLEASE don’t send any more messages,” Morter said.