Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part VIII): Cluster of isolated schools absorbs a fourth small school

The Newton County Times (Arkansas) reported in late December, 2011, that the Ozark Mountain School District had voted 5 to 2 to annex the Lead Hill School District (Boone County). Ozark Mountain is a district formed out of a state mandated, comprehensive round of consolidation in 2003; it includes three campuses: Western Grove (Newton County), St. Joe (Searcy County) and Bruno-Pyatt (Marion County). The Lead Hill Board of Education and the Arkansas Board of Education must now approve the annexation. (The St. Joe school is pictured below, and it is also visible behind the sign pictured above).

All three of the current Ozark Mountain District campuses are "isolated schools" and receive additional state funding as such. Lead Hill does not share this designation and so does not bring that additional state funding stream into the Ozark Mountain District with it. Read more about Arkansas's isolated school designation here.

Lead Hill is a town on 287 in far northeast Boone County, on Bull Shoals Lake. The need for its consolidation became clear in the fall of 2011, when its enrollment came in under 350 students, the threshold at which a school can no longer exist under Arkansas law. According to the news report, the Lead Hill Board of Education approached the Ozark Mountain District about a possible merger; the report does not indicate if Lead Hill also approached other Districts about annexation. However, Lead Hill is much closer to several schools than Lead Hill is to any of the campuses in the Ozark Mountain District. The Bergman School District is just 12 miles from Lead Hill, while the much larger Harrison School District is 20 miles away. In contrast, Western Grove, the closest of the schools in the Ozark Mountain School District, is 33 miles from Lead Hill. Bergman might have seemed a sensible partner for Lead Hill not only because of physical proximity but because Bergman's enrollment is also flagging, meaning it soon may be forced to consolidate or close.

Indeed, these proximity and size factors seemed to influence Lead Hill in what might be seen as a perverse way. As with other consolidation/annexation decisions about which I have written (read more here), "Lead Hill officials looked to partner with neighboring Ozark Mountain School District, since its campuses are so far away that the Lead Hill campus couldn't feasibly be closed, and its students moved to another campus." This suggests that Lead Hill looked to Ozark Mountain rather than to a district that was in closer proximity as a way of warding off future closure of its campus, something Bergman or Harrison might be tempted to do.

The petition by which Ozark Mountain annexed Lead Hill calls for each of the four campuses to retain "its own identity, both in name and in school mascot--Bruno-Pyatt Patriots; Lead Hill Tigers; St. Joe Wildcats" and Western Grove Warriors. The consolidated school board will include the seven current members from the Ozark Mountain School Board, in addition to two from Lead Hill. The interim board will serve until 2013, when all seven board seats will be up for election. The two Ozark Mountain Board members associated with the Western Grove school voted against the consolidation, though the newspaper does not report why.

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