GUEST COLUMN

Tournaments Inspire Rural School Thoughts

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It’s early March, a hint of spring is here and a time I look forward to….high school basketball state tournament.
Schools and their sports teams have had a challenging school year trying to keep healthy in a pandemic. Many fans, like me, are grateful to be able to watch games on YouTube or other socially distanced platforms. Yet it’s still not quite the same as seeing your friends, family, and neighbors all together supporting the local team.

Mountain View and Rural Special girls’ teams are headed to state. Rural Special’s perennial rival, West Side Greers Ferry, is on the opposite side of the bracket, after the two teams exchanged two-point wins as district and regional champs.

I look at the brackets for Class A, studying the names of the schools intently, and realize that I probably have a different perspective than most.

For ten years I volunteered and/or worked for Rural Community Alliance, an organization that championed small rural schools and communities across Arkansas. That allowed me to meet people on the ground, in their own communities, from most of the small school districts across the state.

Looking at the names of the schools in the tournament brackets, I see several survivors of Act 60, that pernicious legislation that changed everything for Arkansas’ smallest schools, putting them in constant threat of closure. For every survivor there were more that didn’t make it. About 60 high schools in Arkansas were closed over the past 16 years simply because they were deemed too small to exist. Almost as many elementary schools were also closed. Only until the Arkansas legislature passed and Governor Hutchinson signed an Act 60 waiver on March 11, 2015 was there much hope for those school districts hovering at the 350-student enrollment mark.

Places like Lead Hill (Boone County), Kirby (Pike County), and Shirley (Van Buren County) have survived because of the waiver. Lead Hill and Kirby schools have since had substantial enrollment gains that moved them out of the danger zone.

Some schools like Rural Special and Timbo (annexed to Mountain View School District), Kingston and Oark (annexed to Jasper School District) still have intact K-12 campuses thanks to the school boards, administrators, and communities who have made the extra effort to keep them open. Sometimes that extra effort is a tax millage increase. Painful, yes, but I wholeheartedly support giving schools the money they need to operate. We can’t expect the Mountain View School District to continue providing quality instruction and facilities while having the second lowest tax millage in the state. Closing campuses will mean losing students to schools outside the county which would only increase the district’s financial losses. Cutting expenditures immediately is necessary but will not make up the shortfall in the long run. Whether one campus or three, the school district will not continue to operate very far into the future with its current level of revenue.

We’ll enjoy the games and cheer the teams on, but let’s also remember the places like Delight, Delaplaine, Elaine, Leslie, Stephens, Paron, Humphrey, Evening Shade, Mt. Pleasant, Saratoga, Sulphur Rock, Black Rock, Waldo, Weiner, Wilburn, Winslow (and the list goes on) that have only memories of rooting their town’s team on. And for the naysayers who think keeping a small school open is all about the sports teams, there’s much more at stake than that. But that’s a story for another day.

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