By Alan Prendergast
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"We had angry meetings where people argued over the details, like the location of the building and the colors, but they'd come back the next week and keep working on it," Rittenhouse says. "Farmers are very independent people, and this was something they had to do together. It changed the community by making it more united. When people need help, they rely on themselves and each other. I think what people in urban areas can learn from Idalia is how to do for yourself instead of asking the government to do for you."
But because of the way Colorado's Public School Finance Act is written, the people of Idalia had to ask anyway, and a few years ago, they turned to their state representative for help. Bud Moellenberg, who represented the central plains area, introduced a bill in 1996 that would have earmarked $100,000 for the state's smallest schools.
Since the state doles out education dollars on a per-student basis, small schools in districts with larger schools are often shortchanged. For instance, the schools in Idalia and Wray get about $5,000 per student, but since Wray has so many more students, it gets much more money. This often results in a problem for the tiny schools, since they still have to provide some of the same basic services that the medium-sized and larger ones do. Small schools that make up their own separate districts, however, qualify for special funding of nearly $9,000 per student. Since Idalia was not a stand-alone district, it couldn't get the added funding that its small size warrants.
But the bill didn't pass, and three weeks into the legislative session, Moellenberg died of a heart attack. Brad Young, who replaced Moellenberg in the House, took up the cause.
"I was contacted in 1997 by the then-superintendent, who said they [the district] had a problem. Having such a small school in the district created a real burden in funding," Young says. "So I decided I'd try to get additional funding for small-attendance centers, and in 1998, I did. There was $800,000 set aside." But since there were twenty schools around the state that qualified as small-attendance centers -- schools with fewer than 200 students -- when the money was divided, Idalia and Liberty, a school of 115 students in the West Yuma County School District that shares many of Idalia's financial problems, saw only $30,000 between them. "It didn't do a lot for those two schools," Young says.
Last year, as a last-ditch effort, he met with school-board members from both Yuma County districts and decided that there was only one way to get the money: deconsolidate. He drafted a bill that would specifically allow Liberty and Idalia to break off into districts of their own and restructure the way they were financed -- a venture that, if approved, would cost the state more than $1.2 million a year.
But when the bill was introduced in the House education committee last year, Young says, "I was told by [Senator] Norma Anderson that it would be hard to get this bill through because it required money."
Other legislators suggested Idalia solve its financial woes by closing its school and busing kids to Wray. Soehner admits they had some good arguments: "The curriculum offered at Idalia is bare-bones; we don't have the luxury or staff to offer electives," he says. "Their argument was that when kids get to high school, we need to give them more choices, which they could get at Wray. What we didn't like was the economics argument -- that it's cheaper to bus kids to Wray than to operate two schools. My question was, 'When do you stop busing? Do you then bus kids from Wray to Fort Morgan when you need to save money?'
"When we first went up to plead our case, we didn't have a strong argument," he adds. "But we came back and regrouped and found a fifth-grade girl from the southeast corner of the district who rides a bus an hour and ten minutes in the morning just to get to school in Idalia, and we had her speak before the legislators. We calculated how much longer she'd have to ride if we bused kids to Wray; it would have tacked on an additional 35 miles to her trip." (Only about twenty students live in Idalia itself.)
In the end, Anderson and the rest of the committee supported the bill, and when it reached the Senate floor, "there was no opposition to it," Young says. On May 24, 1999, the bill became law.
In the 1940s, there were 125 school districts in Yuma County. With 2,394 students in the 2,383-square-mile county, that equated to about one student per square mile. As people began moving off their farms and into cities, the population in many eastern plains towns dwindled, and it no longer made sense to operate that many schools, let alone that many tax districts. So the state consolidated them, and by 1958, the remaining 26 districts folded into the East and West Yuma County School Districts. But the unforeseen consequence of the cost-saving measure was that when schools closed, towns died.
One of the towns that got to keep its school was Joes, a tiny hamlet about twenty miles west of Idalia. The Liberty School is a part of the West Yuma County School District. Forty miles north of Joes is Yuma, a town with four schools -- a preschool and an elementary, middle and high school -- for its 900 students. But Liberty, like Idalia, may soon have its own district.