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What consolidation? - The more things change 

The more some things stay the same in one small school district after "reform" and consolidation. At least for now.

There was no question Umpire would go. It's the state's second-smallest school district, home to fewer than 100 students. It spends about $13,000 per student each year, more than double the state average, just to provide the basics. No matter how or how low the legislature set the consolidation bar, Umpire wasn't going to pass. So in late March, the district's school board voted to annex to the Wickes school district, 18 miles to the west. And last week, the doors closed for the last time on the independent Umpire school, signaling to some of the town's 100 or so residents that their community isn't far behind. That's supposed to be how consolidation works, right? Big-city legislators impose their "reform" on the rest of the state, and in the process kill off proud rural schools and the communities that surround them. Except that in Umpire's case - and in many of the 57 consolidations effected this spring - very little is actually going to change. The town of Umpire is so small that you can really believe the school is all that holds it together, even though some years there aren't enough high school students to field a basketball team and plenty of people who live in the school district don't have school-age children. But the school board struck a deal that allows them to keep all 12 grades at Umpire, so the school's students - there were 96 this year - will return to the same classrooms and the same teachers this fall. They're losing their superintendent, and local landowners are losing a significant portion of their property tax bill, but other than that, consolidation is leaving Umpire, for the most part, alone. Still, the process hasn't been smooth, and some connected with the school say the town won't get over it for a long time. There's some lingering mistrust about how board members chose between the two districts that offered to annex Umpire, and there's lingering uncertainty that the deal they reached will actually be enough to keep the high school open more than a couple of years. It's almost a comic understatement to say that Umpire is a small town, and an isolated one. It's a hard 125 miles southwest of Little Rock, and 45 minutes from the closest Wal-Mart. The school, the post office, one quick-stop store and a handful of churches are slung casually around the T where two-lane highways 278 and 84 meet, the biggest intersection in northern Howard County. There's nowhere to eat, nowhere to rent a movie, nowhere to get a haircut. Few people move here because there is almost literally nowhere to work other than family farms. The population of what the Census Bureau defines as Umpire Township - a hunk of northern Howard County signficantly larger than the town's official limits - is 261. None of that had the school's educators worried, though, even as the legislature debated dissolving tiny school districts, high school principal Linda Kitchens said. "They've been talking consolidation since I came here 28 years ago," she said. "I've heard consolidation for 28 years, and we still have school every day." Still, Bernie Hellums, Umpire's latest and last superintendent, took the job a year ago knowing she would most likely help usher the district out of existence. "It doesn't cost a lot to run this school - about $1.2 million a year - but that's way too much for the number of kids," said Hellums, who's also worked in the Pulaski County schools and said it's not fair that teachers there have 30 students in their classes, while Umpire's teachers may have only half a dozen. "…I was not unrealistic, that this school needed to stay the way it was - that's crazy." When people in Umpire need to buy something other than stamps, gas or the most rudimentary groceries, they drive south 15 miles to Dierks, a town of 1,230 that provides the closest access to things like banks and Little League. Some also send their children to school there, so they can play football or cheerlead or play in the band. They don't go to Wickes, a town of 675 across the Polk County line 18 miles west of Umpire. But it's Wickes that won Umpire's hand in the uneasy courtship of consolidation, and for a single reason: Wickes promised to keep Umpire's high school open. Dierks said they'd close it. An understandable choice, but the decision didn't go down easy with everyone - most vocally Jimmy Monasco, a school board member until he resigned after the board voted 4-1 in March to consolidate with Wickes. "I've never been through anything close to this," said Monasco, a former farmer who now does contract work for Weyerhaeuser, one of the area's larger employers. "It hasn't been a very good time." Umpire's schools are successful by most standards. Although two-thirds of its students are low-income, they outscored their peers statewide last year in almost every standardized-test category. The exceptions were sixth-grade literacy and math scores, and the high school end-of-course exams in algebra and literacy. There are 10 teachers for the 30 students in grades 9-12; most are certified in two subjects, and some are certified in three, principal Linda Kitchens said. Students take some classes, like journalism, through distance learning - hooked up via video feed to a teacher across the state. That's the only way the school can offer all the classes the state requires - which Kitchens said it does. There is no certified music teacher, and the art teacher doubles as librarian, but otherwise teachers have all the credentials they need, she said. Still, that means students don't have many choices. Spanish is the only foreign language offered, and only two years of it. There are four units of math, but only four - no calculus. Kitchens said students actually enrolled in 33 different classes this past school year. It's not unusual for classes to have just two or three students, or even to turn into an independent study if only one student signs up, she said. Extracurriculars are limited too: track and baseball, business, agriculture and home ec clubs, yearbook staff, student council. Gov. Mike Huckabee's school reform proposals early last year didn't start the consolidation debate here. There's long been a group of people in Umpire - however quiet - who thought the school needed to consolidate, either to give students more opportunities or to lower residents' tax bills, Monasco said. Umpire has the highest property tax rate in the state, a whopping 58.4 mills (Little Rock's, by comparison, is 46.4, the state average 32.53), which pays for roughly half the school's yearly budget. Once lawmakers finally settled on the 350-student cutoff earlier this year - and wrote in protections that would still help most districts avoid closing any schools - the debate turned from "whether" to "how." There were three logical choices: Dierks, Wickes and Kirby, the school district east of Umpire. Umpire school board members met with officials from each district, said Janie Krantz, a board member. "They went about like you'd expect," said Krantz, whose son-in-law is also on the school board. "We didn't ask for this to happen. They didn't ask to take on another school. Some went better than others." Kirby said outright they weren't interested; Dierks wanted to close the high school; and Wickes said they'd keep it open as long as state law required and it was "financially feasible." It's those conditions that made the Dierks supporters nervous. Under state law, Umpire qualifies as an "isolated" school district, and the consolidation law specifically exempted isolated schools from closure. Had Umpire chosen Dierks they could have elected not to claim their isolated status; now that they have, Wickes is, effectively, stuck with them, and will get an extra $2,000 per Umpire student from the state for their trouble. Unless the law changes, and Jimmy Monasco isn't the only one who thinks that's inevitable. "I've heard rumors that once the election is over, the legislature's going to take back some of the things they've done," said Stan Kesterson, who has two children in Umpire's school and a sister who teaches at Dierks. Wickes Superintendent Lendall Martin said, however, that even without the isolated school protection, Umpire's school wouldn't become a financial burden unless enrollment drops permanently. But Monasco said people in Umpire were foolish to believe that Wickes will keep its promise for long - "30 kids in grades 9-12 is not financially feasible," he said - and that once it does move the high school grades out of Umpire, most parents will take their kids to Dierks anyway. "I fought tooth and nail to get board members to see this," Monasco said. But Umpire's school board held two public meetings and took a straw poll, and Wickes won hands down. No one but Hellums, Kitchens and the school showed up for the actual school board vote. Word gets around a town the size of Umpire, Hellums said, and it was pretty clear which way the vote would go. The issue isn't so clearly settled as the 4-1 school board vote, though. "There are some people who are very mad about it," said Patsie Johnson, Umpire's second-grade teacher. "At the meeting, people were very verbal. Then there are people on the other side saying we're talking about keeping our school here or not keeping our school here. And a lot of folks who wanted Dierks already have their kids there." That includes Monasco. His oldest daughter graduated from Umpire two years ago, but his two younger children go to Dierks. He said he hadn't been planning to run for re-election to the Umpire school board, and after the vote to annex with Wickes, he resigned. Now, he says, Umpire simply waited too long to face the inevitable. "If you mentioned consolidation at Umpire School [before this year] they'd have run you out on a rail. That was a bad word," Monasco said. "But realistically, if they'd have done that 10 years ago we wouldn't have been going through this right now. The high school ought to have been consolidated 10 years ago … There's lots of good people that live here, but our school is dying, and it has been for a long time." As for the school board's choice of Wickes, Monasco said he doesn't believe it reflects what most people wanted. "The (community) vote wasn't carried out the way it ought to have been," he said. "Wickes had it, but it wasn't done in the right way." He talked to people who supported Dierks, but weren't able to go to the meeting where the poll was taken, and didn't realize they could register their votes absentee, he said. "I think the majority of people, if they had a chance to vote in an election, if it was held right, would vote to go to Dierks," he said. Even those who think the board made the right decision don't argue Wickes was the best choice beyond its offer to keep the school open. "Had Dierks offered us the package Wickes did, we would have gone to Dierks, no doubt about it," said Sherry Hammock, Umpire's high school science teacher. The package is about as generous as they get. Wickes' school board, looking to make themselves a little more secure against any future consolidation, offered the same deal to four school districts this spring: Join with us, and we'll keep your school open, give your teachers a raise and generally try to stay out of your business as much as possible. Umpire's the only district that took them up on it; two others had enough students they didn't have to consolidate with anyone, and the third chose Mena in a vote at least as controversial as Umpire's. It's hard to see any disadvantages for Umpire. Some teachers will get raises of up to $8,000 out of the deal, no one's losing their job, and Umpire taxpayers will start paying at Wickes' rate of 39. 2 mills. That means a drop of almost $200,000 in local tax receipts, but conveniently, that's just how much the new Wickes district will get from the state in isolated school funding each year - money that must be spent at Umpire. If the disadvantages aren't obvious, though, neither are the benefits. Umpire's high school students probably won't get a greater choice of classes unless they're willing to make the commute to Wickes everyday. Kitchens said the school will be using a lot more distance learning next school year, but that's not necessarily because of consolidation. Wickes' test scores are lower than Umpire's, for the most part. The two schools may share a few teachers next school year, but students won't make the trip to Wickes unless they want a class or activity Umpire doesn't have. As for Hellums, she'll take a job as high school principal in Lockesburg next school year. It's closer to her Nashville home, and, she said, turning down Wickes' offer of an administrative job in the combined school district allowed her to stay objective in the decision-making process. She said she thinks Umpire will save about $250,000 when it eliminates her salary, a couple of teaching positions and central office expenses. Martin, Wickes' superintendent, met with Umpire's teachers after school one day in late April, assuring them he was concerned about the school - not just about keeping Wickes afloat - and answering questions about how things will change when the teachers become Wickes district employees. Since then, teachers from both schools have worked out a compromise school calendar, administrators are working to combine the finances, and Umpire's teachers don't seem too concerned about the change. Johnson, the second-grade teacher, said she's just looking forward to having it over with. "We've kept it as normal as possible this year, but I think a new start next year will help," Johnson said. "We won't have to be dreading all that we dreaded this year." None of which is to say that everyone at the Umpire school is happy to be consolidating, pay raise or no. "I'm kind of disappointed," sophomore Kayla Kesterson said. "I've gone to this school my entire life. It's just kind of sad we have to consolidate." Says Kitchens, the principal: "Even though the school's still here we've lost our identity. We're part of someone else now - we're not us. We're not Umpire. In some ways that's kind of sad." And it could get sadder, Stan Kesterson says. "I'm not sure administrative consolidation is going to work," he said. "I'm not sure the [Supreme Court] and the state school board are going to accept what's been done as enough. "I don't think the dust has settled yet."
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