Bigger farms, smaller families lead to changes in rural district

Published: Nov. 10, 2016 at 9:48 PM CST
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As the rural landscape in South Dakota changes, so does its education. Some schools close down, others open up.

Over the last 30 years, the number of public school districts in South Dakota has dropped from 193 to 150. Next year, that number drops to 149 as one rural district gets ready to dissolve.

The Grant-Deuel School District sits on the edge of Revillo, South Dakota.

Population: 119.

"Our homecoming theme is 'once a wildcat, always a wildcat', we won't forget that," Superintendent Al Stewart said.

Wildcats for one final year as declining enrollment is forcing a change, forcing a dissolution. Here's why:

"Larger and larger farms, smaller and smaller families. There was a time when we went out with a school bus load through a section of land and put a whole busload of kids together. Now, you go the same section of land and find two or three families. Versus back in the day there were 10 families, with 5-6 kids," Stewart said.

Superintednent Al Stewart has felt the impact for at least a year when varsity football had to merge with Milbank. Now, all other sports have done the same.

"That's the beginning of when people started to think, 'how long are we going to be around?'" Stewart said.

That question lingered until now.

"As we sat down and analyzed the district, we found the youngsters, pre-school kids there weren't enough in our district to continue," Stewart said.

Right now, Grant-Deuel has a total of 61 students. According to state law, a South Dakota district must begin a plan to reorganize if student enrollment drops below 100. That's the only requirement by the state's Department of Education. Otherwise, the decision is left to the individual districts and the community.

It's what one union, representing teachers across the state, can get behind.

Milbank with get 73.18 percent of the Grant-Deuel school district taxable land with a value of $199,197,171 This should bring the total value of the Milbank District to $822,916,774 in taxable land.

"The South Dakota Education Association believes it's a local decision. It has to be a local decision. It's not an easy decision at all but it needs to be one that occurs at a local level. One that needs to be made for the good of students in mind," SDEA President Mary McCorkle said.

Corsica and Stickney were the last two communities to consolidate two years ago. Principal Andrew Fergen says 'so far, so good'.

"It takes a lot of communication with communities, school boards with a lot of entities and the school district has done a great job communicating and planning the consolidation. It's been a good first year. We're just getting better with this as we go forward," Corsica-Stickney Principal Andrew Fergen said.

Thinking about the end of a school year, the end of an era, at Grant-Deuel is emotional for Stewart.

"They're our kids and even in the few years I've been here as things have gotten smaller here for whatever reasons, every time you lose one it's personal," he said.

Other concerns for closing down a school include the changes it could bring to the community.

"If you lose a school, you lose the community? Yes, that is a fear. We'll have to approach it as the time comes," School Board President Jon Wold said.

Wold has been the president of the Grant-Deuel School Board for almost 10 years. A local farmer and father, the school will always be a part of him and his family.

"I grew up through the school, where I graduated. I was hoping all my kids would graduate from Grant-Deuel. You have to be open another six years," Jon Wold said.

So where will Grant-Deuel students go next year?

To divide the land mass, 78% will go to neighboring Milbank. 20% will attend Clear Lake to the south. The remaining students will go to Waverly-South Shore.

"It's ours. they're our kids. It's hard to talk about. It'll be very difficult come May and that family spreads out," Stewart said.

Milbank with get 73.18 percent of the Grant-Deuel school district taxable land with a value of $199,197,171 This should bring the total value of the Milbank District to $822,916,774 in taxable land.