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Sylvanite, Yaak boards mull consolidation

| April 6, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Trustees of Sylvanite and Yaak school districts met jointly last week to discuss possible consolidation, but citizens attending the session spoke strongly against the idea.

Jolena Calvi told board members the low student-to-teacher ratio in one-room schools allows better instruction than in large schools.

"It's a gift," she said, "and we're one of the last places that has this gift to give to our children."

Yaak School Board members suggested the March 28 meeting to talk about options given the low enrollment at each school. However, Yaak board member Gary Harding said they aren't necessarily endorsing consolidation.

"I have no long-term agenda," he said. "I want to see both schools stay open.

"Our idea wasn't to come down here and push something down anybody's throat. We're down here saying 'What can we do?'"

The problem is that each one-school district has fewer than 10 students, which is the minimum they must enroll to get full state funding. After two years of sub-10 enrollment, the districts would have to decide whether to consolidate, become non-operational or try to pass levies to pay the full cost of each school's $46,000 annual budget.

Estimates are for neither school to have more than three students next fall unless new families move to the area. However, several people emphasized the historic fluctuations in the schools' attendance and said it is possible that 10 students might show up.

Russ Shelton, a former Sylvanite trustee, said he's seen the school range from five to 25 students. He said it would be a "tragedy" to close either small school, saying both communities have a unique identity.

"There's an upper and a lower Yaak and you can tell the difference," Shelton said. "I'd like this (Sylvanite school) to be left alone."

Putting Sylvanite students under Yaak School District control "would be like Troy telling us what to do," he said.

Board members of both schools as well as those attending the meeting agreed that being annexed by Troy School District would be a worse case scenario. Harding estimated Yaak and Sylvanite property owners' taxes would double if that happened.

Yaak trustees have voted to place a $7,500 levy on the May 3 election ballot to bolster funding for 2005-2006. Sylvanite trustees have voted to ask voters to pass a $9,035. levy.

Ron Higgins, superintendent of Lincoln County schools, said a consolidation election can be held any time. Both districts would have to vote in favor of consolidation for the process to proceed.

He noted that next year would be both schools' second year below the 10-student plateau, without an unexpected enrollment surge.

"After that, something must happen," he said.

Sylvanite board chairman Mickey Smith said voters hold the key to Sylvanite's fate.

"It all boils down to the taxpayers," he said. "If they vote to keep the school open, it will stay open."

Trustees didn't make any decisions Monday, although it appeared the consolidation issue won't be addressed seriously for another year at the earliest.

Sylvanite board chairman Smith echoed Calvi's words about the quality of one-room schools.

"In big cities they run you through like cattle in a chute," he said. "They don't do any real teaching like we do here. You can't beat the one-room schools. You can't beat the teaching."

County superintendent Higgins also spoke in favor of Sylvanite maintaining its own identify.

"It costs money to keep this school open," he said, "but there's historic value. Once it's gone, it's gone."