Disorganization could lead to closure of all school buildings in Barton County’s USD 112
CLAFLIN — Barton County residents will decide whether to break up with their school district and “start fresh” following heartbreak and anger over the closure of a rural community’s high school.
The change could result in hundreds of students displaced and three more schools shut down.
The Aug. 1 disorganization vote is a test case for rural communities that increasingly have to make decisions to shut down or consolidate as populations dwindle and schools face financial strain.
“This is brand new territory for the Department of Education, for the State Board of Education and basically every district in the state of Kansas,” said KSDE general counsel Scott Gordon during a June 27 meeting in Claflin.
Dissolving the district is likely to have widespread consequences for all district schools and likely will increase residents’ taxes, according to opponents of disorganization.
Wilson parent Kayla Cullens said the split needs to happen because the Claflin-based Unified School District 112 school board voted to shut down Wilson High School.
The district covers portions of five counties, including the Holyrood, Bushton, Claflin, Dorrance, Lorraine, Wilson, Beaver and Odin communities, along with other rural areas. Claflin and Wilson are a little less than a half hour apart, and the other communities mostly fall within a 10-30 minute range of each other.
Cullens, part of a disorganization campaign, said the district’s school board had long treated the Wilson community unfairly. She said the “hostility” in the decision to close the high school was the latest evidence of other schools being prioritized over Wilson.
“It’s been growing animosity between both ends of the district since consolidation, and it’s now a good time just to part ways,” Cullens said. “They weren’t willing to work with us. They weren’t willing to look at the bigger picture.”
Michael Kratky, a lifelong Wilson resident and fellow disorganization advocate, said the Wilson shutdown was a bad decision by the board. Kratky said part of his frustration stemmed from Claflin’s consolidation with Wilson, Holyrood, Bushton and Lorraine in 2010, when the Claflin school district needed financial help.
Kratky said the district didn’t extend the same help these past two years to Wilson.
“They’re shooting for everything to be centrally located eventually in Claflin. … (The district) helped them survive. They didn’t help us survive,” Kratky said.
The district now has three schools left: Central Plains Elementary, Central Plains Junior-Senior High School and Wilson Elementary School.
Cullens said she is aware that disorganization isn’t likely to re-open the high school, but she said the Wilson community will fare better under a different district school board.
“I do not think it will get re-opened,” Cullens said. “I hope it will, and it’s really the only chance we have of reopening it. But I don’t see a yes vote opening our high school.”
Other members of communities in the district call the move misguided.
Denise Schmidt, a Claflin resident, educator and member of the opposing “United USD 112” campaign, said the disorganization effort is driven by anger and fear.
“They will lose their elementary school, we will lose our elementary school, Central Plains Elementary, and we’ll also lose Central Plains Junior Senior High School,” Schmidt said. “We will lose everything in a yes vote.”
Some have said the disorganization campaign has been misleading, with Wilson residents encouraged to believe signing the disorganization petition would bring back the high school or allow them to create their own district. Schmidt said a sign at the local post office asked residents to go in and sign the petition to “save our schools.”
“Obviously it’s for the postal officials to decide, but putting it out there to patrons, ‘save our school’ or ‘we need a high school’ and then encouraging them to sign the petition is misleading, because by signing the petition, it doesn’t open the high school,” Schmidt said.
Cullens said signs about saving the school were the work of one person, and not the official campaign effort, which has put up signs asking for a “fresh start.”
What will happen?
If the measure doesn’t pass in the Aug. 1 vote, the USD 112 school district will stay the same, keeping the tax rate and schools intact.
If the measure passes, the Kansas State Board of Education takes over, deciding how to divide up the USD 112 territory into 10 neighboring school districts. The district’s schools will either be absorbed into the surrounding districts or shut down.
Officials from the Kansas State Department of Education held two informational meetings on June 27 to explain the repercussions of disorganization. During one of the informational meetings, Gordon, the agency attorney, said he wanted to clear up rumors that people in the school district would have some say over which school district they became a part of.
“I don’t know who came up with that,” Gordon said. “And that’s probably not going to happen.”
Gordon said Wilson High School wouldn’t be reopened unless the incorporating school district decided it was a good choice. Gordon said reassignment wouldn’t assure the future safety of any of the district’s schools, or the school staffs’ jobs.
“Do we get to guarantee that they’re going to stay open? I don’t believe so,” Gordon said. “If you vote to disorganize a school district and you disorganize the locally elected school board, it is the same as if an employer suddenly goes out of business or a business owner suddenly goes out of business. The business is gone. It is entirely up to the receiving school districts.”
According to Gordon, former USD 112 residents likely would lose any say in school district functions for a few months. After the state Board of Education makes the reassignment decision, people from the former district wouldn’t be eligible to vote in elections for about 120 days.
Gordon estimated it would take 18 months after reassignment before anyone from the former USD 112 could run for local school board.
Taxpayers will pay the rate of their new district. Because nine of the 10 neighboring districts have higher mill levy rates, it’s likely many reassigned residents would see a tax increase.
Cullens said she understood there could be negative implications for the district but that Wilson needed better representation.
“We don’t know if a school will close,” Cullens said. “That’s totally up to the receiving district. We don’t know what that looks like. … They can choose to leave as open as is. They can choose to reopen the high school here in Wilson. They could choose to shut everybody down.”
She added: “We’re putting faith in the effort that they will be looking out for what’s in the best interest of our students, which we feel they’re not getting today.”
Timeline of the vote
In April 2022, the USD 112 Central Plains Board of Education voted to reassign Wilson junior and high school students to the Central Plains Junior-Senior High School because of low enrollment and financial issues.
Members of the Wilson community began to explore options of keeping the school open, such as a land transfer, which would place the building into a neighboring district.
After those unsuccessful efforts, the BOE voted in January to close Wilson High School at the end of the 2022-23 school year. The plan was that Wilson junior high and high school students would be bused to Central Plains High School in Claflin. Kindergarten through sixth grade students would continue to attend school in Wilson.
According to KSDE data, the Wilson high school had 73 students at the end of the 2022-2023 school year, a 50% decline over 10 years. The Claflin high school had 140 students for the same school year.
Members of the community asked the board to grant an one-year extension to give the school time to find alternate solutions, such as opening a Catholic school in the space, or continuing efforts to have other school districts accept the high school.
After the extension was refused, a group of community residents successfully filed a petition in May to dissolve the school district entirely. Under Kansas statute, a disorganization petition with enough signatures is put on a ballot for all voters in the district.
Cullens, who has lived in Wilson for about 20 years, has said the months since the closure have been difficult. Her son graduated from the high school after attending the school since preschool, and her daughter, a rising senior, was set on the same track before the closure announcement. Now, she will shift schools, splitting her up from friends she has known since kindergarten.
“It’s very sad,” Cullens said. “And it’s hard on her.”
She blames a “lopsided” school board for the decision. Two out of the seven board members represent Wilson, and she said the school board wasn’t advocating for her community.
Cullens cited differences in janitor pay and being passed over for collaborative opportunities with other schools for athletic programs as examples of unequal treatment
She said she’s already seen some families move away as a result.
“There’s a house on the market,” Cullens said. “There’s no more local spending. … I just foresee it getting worse.”
Rural communities across Kansas
In reaction to anger from the Wilson community, and support from other rural communities, the Legislature this year voted into law House Bill 2138.
The law allows citizens to request the state BOE to conduct an administrative review of a resolution to close a school building if 5% or more of registered voters in the school district request the review.
Kratky went to Topeka multiple times to testify in support of the proposal.
“Through all of this in our district, this discussion was never about education,” Kratky said in testimony submitted for a March 22 hearing. “It was always about one school surviving at the cost of another closing. … The current structure allows lopsided boards to overpower smaller schools in a district, and the smaller schools don’t have the ability to do what’s best for our communities. We need your help.”
Following the review, the state BOE will give its opinion on closure to the local board, which will make the final decision.
Schmidt said rural communities needed to find ways to cope with shrinking populations, pointing to Bushton as an example. When the district voted to shut down the Bushton middle school in 2019, her daughter was one of the students transferred to the Claflin school.
Schmidt said Wilson could learn from Bushton, which has turned the former middle school building into a multi-purpose facility for community spaces. She pointed out the Bushton community didn’t “take their anger and hurt” and use the statute to disorganize the school district.
“There’s always a loss,” Schmidt said. “Kind of like a death. You have to mourn the death of what was. You’re not the same community you’ve always been. But that doesn’t mean your community can’t go on, that your students can’t prosper, and that there’s good things to come.”
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