Breaking Away

On nights when the Idalia Wolves challenge the Liberty Knights in basketball, farmers and ranchers get in their pickups and head to town. They pull into the Idalia School parking lot, where they leave their keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked. They file into the school's new gym, and when the Wolves score, they shake the rafters with their boot-stomping. Afterward, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends head up the main road to the Route 36 Grille and Pub to celebrate or commiserate.

Idalia is a desolate town on the wind-whipped plains of eastern Colorado, sixteen miles west of the Kansas border. Only ninety people reside here; another 400 live in the vast surrounding farmland. The school is situated at the upper end of town and a little to the left. About 150 students attend classes here, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The other three schools in the East Yuma County School District are in Wray, a town of 2,000 people 26 miles north of Idalia.

Ever since 1958, when 26 eastern Colorado school districts were combined into two -- the East and West Yuma County School Districts -- Idalia and Wray have been paired in a marriage of unequals.

For instance, in 1984, voters in east Yuma County approved a $6.4 million bond initiative to fund their four schools; $6 million of it went to build a new combination elementary/high school in Wray. The remaining $400,000 went to Idalia, which got a locker room and a library.

"For over ten years, we've been paying for new schools in Wray, and we've only gotten a pittance out here," says Gary Soehner, a former school-board member who represented Idalia. "We feel like we're the stepchild. What it boils down to is that these are communities of two different sizes, and each has its own problems. Five of the seven members of the East Yuma County Board of Education live near Wray -- and that's the way it should be, considering the number of students in the Wray schools versus the number of students attending school in Idalia -- and what happens is that the problems in Wray garner the most attention and get the most response."

Soehner adds that having one entity governing schools in both communities "is like one board of directors trying to manage a big company and a small company with two sets of problems. Idalia is our community, and we wouldn't have a community in Idalia if we didn't have a school. When we go to ballgames, we go over and eat at the cafe and meet people from ten or fifteen miles on the other side of Idalia; the only time you see them is at school functions, and those functions are well-attended."

To get what they want -- the new gym where the Wolves play, for instance -- the people of Idalia have had to rely on themselves, raising money on their own rather than waiting for state funding.

But all of that is about to change. Last year a law was passed that will allow Idalia to split from the East Yuma County School District and form a district of its own. If the separation is approved by east Yuma County voters, it will put the independent folks in Idalia in the exciting -- and frightening -- position of finally being able to shape their own destiny.

Jim Rittenhouse's social studies class is in the last room on the left. Lockers line the narrow hallway, and tiny coats hang on hooks next to adult-sized gray-and-maroon letter jackets. This wing of the school, with its cold linoleum floors and low ceilings, was built in 1949 and hasn't changed since. At lunchtime every day, Rittenhouse's sixth-graders place their chairs on top of their desks before following their teacher from the old part of the school for the brief outdoor crossover to the new part, where the gym and the cafeteria are. It's the part Rittenhouse helped build.

In 1992, Rittenhouse and Soehner were on an accountability committee charged with determining how to make Idalia a better place. When the committee called a town meeting in the old gym to discuss ways to improve Idalia, a list of possibilities -- ranging from recruiting a Wal-Mart or a McDonald's to building a new gym -- was posted on the wall. The 300 people in attendance were each given a sticker and asked to place it on what they thought was the most important idea. A new school gym, cafeteria, preschool, computer lab and clinic got the most stickers.

"In Idalia, everyone has a say in what happens," says Kyle Kite, a senior in the high school. "I can't imagine another city handing out stickers to five-year-olds. I think that's what's really cool about Idalia. It's not just a certain group of older people working on stuff."

But when it came time for them to build their building, "we had to do it ourselves," Soehner says. "The school board only committed $250,000 to a $1.2 million project."

So Rittenhouse and more than thirty other Idalia residents formed the nonprofit Vision Foundation to raise the rest of the money. Between 1992 and 1996 -- well before the last cinder block was put into place on the 27,000-square-foot building -- the foundation managed to collect nearly $1 million, approximately $200,000 from the pockets of the townspeople and the rest from local businesses and trusts.

"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.

"With funding at a little over $5,000 per student but costing over $7,000 a student, it just didn't work," says Bob Kechter, the only West Yuma County Board of Education member representing Liberty. "Yuma had to take its money and send it to Liberty." The school had to cut staffing and programs: Second- and third-graders were combined into one class, and high school art and music classes were eliminated.

"We were backed into a corner," Kechter says. "Last spring, when we went before the legislature, we were looking to close our school within three years. Now we're seeing a light at the end of the tunnel." But Kechter believes West Yuma's deconsolidation will be smoother and more acceptable than East Yuma's deconsolidation. "We've been virtually operating as two separate school districts for years," he says. "We're just lumped into one."

Before Idalia and Wray -- and Liberty and Yuma -- can part ways, however, residents of all four towns have to vote on the deconsolidation. Both districts have formed committees to draft plans for how the divisions will be made, how the assets will be split, what the makeup of the boards will be and how the long-term bond debts will be paid off. Once the committee members finalize the plans, they will be voted on in November. If voters favor deconsolidation -- as most people expect they will -- the change will take effect in 2001, and Idalia's annual per-student funding could jump from about $5,000 a year to $8,600. Funding for Wray will remain roughly the same.

Idalia's Soehner is on the seven-member committee that's planning the East Yuma deconsolidation. The plan, which needs to be finalized by September, calls for five boardmembers to be elected at large.

And although an amicable parting seems like a sure thing, it will involve mixed emotions in both Idalia and Wray, a little bit of fear and even a touch of bitterness about the perceived disparities of the past.

Shielded from the surrounding countryside by high bluffs and situated at the end of a winding, two-lane highway is Wray. The sprawling town appears suddenly, with all the trappings of a good-sized city: a police station, a hospital, a city park, a pay-at-the-pump gas station, and the Wray Super, the local grocery store where Chris Hartz runs the pharmacy.

"I think [deconsolidation] will be a big benefit to both communities," says Hartz, who represents Wray on the East Yuma County Board of Education and also sits on the deconsolidation planning committee. The problem, he says, is that it will make for less efficient school districts. "When you have two schools close together, you can have shared resources," he says. "They'll come back up to par eventually, but it will take time. It would have been nice if [the state] could have provided funding without splitting us, but there was no other way." If legislators had increased funding for the school without deconsolidation, he says, they would have had to increase funding for all small schools in Colorado.

Hartz can see why residents in Idalia feel like stepchildren, but, he says, "the board has tried to be equitable and has tried to make sure Idalia is taken care of. Idalia has been able to develop a really quality education system, and they've done an excellent job of making sure their kids get what they need."

Southwest of the Wray Super, a few blocks beyond Buchanan Middle School, is Wray's elementary/high school which was built with money from the 1984 bond issue. Although the immense peach-colored building opened in 1987, it still has the fresh-paint smell and sparkling-clean look of a brand-new school.

Jim Pagel, the principal of the high school, was born and raised in Yuma County and understands the differences between the two towns. "Idalia has a terrific school system and they have their own special needs which need to be dealt with by their own people," he says, adding that Wray has 750 kids attending its three schools while Idalia only has 150. Because of that, the academic and athletic offerings in Wray are more abundant than those in Idalia.

Walking through the school, Pagel steps over some students who are sprawled out in the hallway during a break and stops at one of the showcases that line the walls in the foyer. Behind the glass are dozens of trophies fashioned in the shapes of miniature basketball players, football players and track runners. Pagel boasts that Wray High School has won eleven state wrestling championships. In another showcase is an enormous plaque honoring Wray for winning a state academic decathlon six years in a row.

He continues into the cafeteria, where wall-length windows provide a magnificent view of the new football field and track, a gift from a local foundation. Pagel leads the way down wide, carpeted hallways toward the library, with its high, wood-beamed ceilings and chrome light fixtures, then on to the auditorium, a room so large it puts the biggest college lecture hall to shame. He winds through several classrooms in the labyrinthine hallways: an agriculture class, a shop class and a technology lab stocked with brand-new Compaq computers.

Athletic director and assistant principal Neal Rusher tries to downplay the grandeur. Before coming to Wray, he taught in Idalia for five years. "In Idalia, the perception is that Wray has everything, but that's not true," he says. "When I left Idalia to come here, I thought I'd be walking away from a school that had nothing and into a school that had everything, and it wasn't that way."

Tim Krause, a high school science and math teacher in Idalia, agrees. "Like anything else, there are always two sides. I've been teaching for 21 years, and I have no complaints about my treatment. But it will be exciting to have direct community control and to have the district administration in the school building rather than thirty miles away," he says. "I think deconsolidating will give us an opportunity to create things we haven't had in the past, like more emphasis on technology. One school we looked at uses computers to help kids compose music, and we'd like to be able to use technology like that, as well as computer-aided design, to give kids hands-on education."

Right now, the Idalia School's new computer lab is filled with used computers, but it's better than nothing. "Up until this year, we didn't have a keyboarding class," says Gary Soehner. Kids who need tutoring will someday use this room, too. "We've been told in past years that only one building in the district can get Title One funding, and that building happens to be in Wray," he says. "With a new district, we'll be able to qualify for the funding to get help for kids who have fallen behind, and we won't have to go through the chain of command and beg and plead only to be told the standard line that there's not enough money."

Cyndie Weyerman, who taught special education in Wray for six years before coming to Idalia fourteen years ago, shares many of Soehner's sentiments. "If we deconsolidate, we won't have to ask permission to do different things to meet our kids' needs," she says.

One thing teachers in Idalia have already done is bring in artists, thanks to a Colorado Council for the Arts grant. The next visiting artist will help students design Web pages, and another will help them write poetry. "We've had to be creative to get the money we need for special programs like that, and funding gets in the way of doing more. Last year, the school-board members told us we have to get all grants approved by them. But we can't always wait for their next monthly meeting to get approval, so the fewer people we need to go through to get okays, the better," Weyerman says.

"This is a very cohesive community. The people work together really well, and that's something you don't find in many places," says Perry Butler. This is Butler's first year as principal of Idalia; prior to this, he ran the Rebound High Plains Youth Center in Brush, and before that, he was principal of Tanglewood, an alternative school in Jefferson County.

The most exciting thing about leading the school now, he says, is that once it separates from Wray, it could become the first charter district in the state.

Charter schools are still public schools, but they don't have to adhere to the same restrictions that govern other schools in their district. As a charter district, Idalia would operate much the same way; the district would still have to meet state academic standards, but it could operate under an unconventional structure.

"Teachers and community members could be on the school board. We could even have a student on the school board. And we could develop the curriculum around student interests. We could have a horticulture expert come in and teach horticulture instead of hiring a certified teacher to do that," Butler says.

Others aren't convinced that deconsolidation is the best thing for Idalia.

Judy Soehner, a cousin of Gary's, has been teaching second grade in Idalia for more than twenty years. "At this point, we have only figured out a few aspects of the deconsolidation, like the boundary lines for the new district, but we haven't decided on capitol reserves or whether we'll share staff. I don't have enough information yet to make a good decision," she says. "There are still some things teachers want to know about job security and salary. We all have to reapply for our jobs, and we don't know yet whether we'll be offered competitive salaries or if the district will want to start with a fresh batch of inexpensive teachers."

And even Rittenhouse's enthusiasm for the school's future shows signs of wear at times. He's worried that the excitement generated by the new building has worn off; now that the bricks and mortar are in place, he fears that establishing an improved educational system in Idalia will be harder than he thought.

"We started getting support from the community last spring to get the [deconsolidation] bill passed. Now the planning committee's purpose is to design a school that addresses our strengths and weaknesses," he says. "It's been tough to get people involved in the educational process. It just doesn't excite people. Parents here have a lot of faith in the teachers; they think we are the experts, and so they're leaving this piece to us. But the truth is, every parent is an expert in their child's education, and I want to see the same kind of involvement that we saw in getting the new building built.

"Everyone's got to have a sticker they can put on an idea."

But whatever the challenges, Rittenhouse's students are ready.

The pending deconsolidation is the topic of discussion in Rittenhouse's senior government class. The tables are situated in a U shape so that the seventeen students can face each other. Rittenhouse is a firm but gentle teacher; he never tells his students they're wrong, but he presses them to think critically.

He throws out the first question: "People in Denver might say, 'Why not close that stupid little school in Idalia and spend that extra money on Littleton?'"

"They have to realize our situation out here," offers one student. "If we were sent to Wray, we'd have to drive thirty miles to get to our after-school jobs."

"I think you'd lose on that," Rittenhouse says. "They'd say, 'Why not stay in Wray after school and get a job there instead of driving home first?'"

"This school is the heart of the community," says Khang Chim. "You break up the school, you break up the community."

"Why haven't people in other places, such as big cities, done what we've done for our school?" Rittenhouse asks.

"I think people in urban areas are complacent. If they could see what this rinky-dink town has done, maybe it would put them in their place," Chim says.

"This community came together because we know each other," says Kyle Reeves. "If someone says they're going to do something, they're going to do it. Because if they don't, everyone knows who they are."


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