Monday, January 30, 2012

One-room school, one student, in western Montana

Jim Robbins reports in today's New York Times from Greenough, Montana, a town with no post office or general store, only a one-room school and a bank of mailboxes. That one-room school--one of 62 in Montana--is distinct in that it has only one student. (Montana has closed 20 other single-room schools in the past decade). Greenough was previously known as Sunset, and the school is the only one in the Sunset district, which has an annual budget of $83,000.

While sparsely populated, the area is not impoverished. It is in a ranching district about 35 miles from Missoula, but the amenity-driven prosperity of the area is one reason for the student body's shrinking size. As Robbins writes, "the cost of the scenic landscape here has risen so high that young, aspiring ranchers, the kind who would be likely to have school-age children, cannot afford to buy the land." As recently as 2001, the school had 20 students, but escalating land prices have driven most families away. The single current Sunset student, a sixth grader, commutes to school by snow-mobile, fives miles each way to the high-altitutude ghost town of Garnet, where she lives with her family, off the grid.

The Sunset school's remote and scenic situation create a paradox, of sorts. Here the population loss is driven by rural gentrification--not a lack of amenities as in other rural areas. Indeed, the Sunset school boasts among its school board members a wealthy ecotourism operator--one of the owners of the Resort at Paws Up, a posh guest ranch that owns the land where the one-room school building--built in 1917--sits. Still, tax payers fund the school, but not all of those tax dollars are local, which makes keeping the school open controversial.

Greenough is not a Census Designated Place and doesn't even have a wikipedia entry! Greenough was previously known as Sunset, and so the district is still called Sunset. Sunset was the center for "industrial-scale logging for the copper mines of Butte, but that is long gone."

Read a description of Montana's school funding scheme here.

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