Central Kansas town losing last remaining school

02/16/2014 1:26 PM

02/16/2014 1:26 PM

A central Kansas school board’s decision to close a small town’s last remaining school has prompted anger, dismay and suggestions that the cost-cutting move will ultimately backfire as parents transfer their children out of the district.

The McPherson County town of Marquette, population 650, saw its high school close in the 1980s and its junior high school shut down three years ago, despite a fundraising effort that brought in $114,000 in 10 days.

At a recent meeting packed by 200 emotional residents, the Smoky Valley School District board voted to close Marquette Elementary School at the end of the current academic year and transfer its 67 pupils to Soderstrom Elementary in Lindsborg. Marquette’s fourth-graders were already moved from their hometown school to Soderstrom, 10 miles away, last fall.

Smoky Valley superintendent Glen Suppes expects the district to save more than $400,000 by shuttering Marquette Elementary. Still, he said there were “no victories” in the board’s vote.

“It was not fun for anybody,” Suppes said.

The fate of Marquette Elementary – which had nearly 130 students just a few years ago – is becoming familiar in Kansas as districts cope with declining enrollment and reduced state funding.

But the dollars-and-cents reasoning behind the Smoky Valley board’s vote, which member Chris Bauer said he cast with tears in his eyes, is scant comfort to Marquette residents who fear the erosion of their community.

Several parents at the meeting held up pieces of paper showing the numbers of children they would pull out of the Smoky Valley district schools and enroll them in the neighboring Little River district.

Denae Birdsong told the board her five children would go to Little River schools if Marquette Elementary were shut down.

“Closing the school will cause more problems,” Birdsong said. “As enrollment declines, you could lose more than you actually gain.”

That’s because Kansas provides state funding to schools on a per-pupil basis. Another supporter of Marquette Elementary, 57-year-old farmer Ron Larson, predicted the closing would start an avalanche of departures that could eventually cost the district $1 million in revenue.

If parents do choose to send their children to Little River – located 24 miles from Marquette – the district would be happy to have them and the state aid that would accompany them.

More than 30 children from Marquette already attend Little River schools, and district officials believe they have room to accommodate many more, interim superintendent Mary Treaster said.

Marquette Elementary School was among the schools receiving the Governor’s Achievement Award, given to schools that have placed in the top 5 percent in reading and math on the state assessments and met attendance or graduation goals.

“It is a wonderful little school,” said Susan Higbee, who teaches orchestra there. “We are so sad.”

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