It is school budget time. For remote and rural towns, it is common for the sustainability of small schools to be in question: do the economic benefits of the school outweigh the cost to local property tax payers? On the surface, closures or consolidations often seem more cost effective.
In 2014, Citizens Organization for Rural Education (CORE), driven by concerned community members from Danforth, Weston, and surrounding northeastern Washington County towns, took a close look at the value of its East Grand School, a facility committed to active outdoor learning.
In partnership with the Sunrise County Economic Council and Strategic Wisdom Partners, CORE released an economic impact study in 2018 showing closing the K-12 school would cost 43 jobs, 35 as direct layoffs from the school and eight indirect job losses associated with reduced spending as school employee households relocate. The school is Danforth’s second biggest employer.
The study showed the economic value of the school as well as its role as a social hub.
Using the IMPLAN model, developed by the federal government and University of Minnesota, it was calculated that these jobs contribute an economic input of around $3 million annually, most being in expenditures in the towns and surrounding areas.
The impacts to the community, however, would be seen in losses beyond the economic. The school is the hub of the community and provides incentives to families considering moving to this remote and rural area known for its picturesque lakes. The loss of the school would undoubtably result in the relocation of families and school employee households as a round trip commute to the next school district is 60 miles or more.
A drop in the area’s population could reduce the patronage needed to support other businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations, the medical clinic, and bank which also serve seasonal residents and tourists. The trickle-down effects could be much greater than the IMPLAN model projects.
“The conversation really hinged around public-school funding, local taxation, and how schools affect economic activity,” said Elbridge Cleaves, president of CORE, the group that sparked the study on closing the East Grand School. “It’s hard to get communities to talk, let alone the communities and the school.”
Cleaves says the economic study gave credibility to the conversation which in turn led to an ongoing partnership between the towns and the school. The study showed the economic value of the school as well as its role as a social hub.
Korah Soll of Rural Aspirations Project noted that residents of Danforth, Weston, and the surrounding area have reached an important conclusion. “The economic development lens is connected to the school improvement lens. They recognize through CORE that the future vitality of their community depends on the strength of their school and the strength of the education within that school.”
With the near-term stress of closure gone, East Grand, led by principal and superintendent Peggy White, was able to strengthen and develop its programming aided by the Rural Aspirations Project. It’s the school’s responsibility to continue quality programming which attracts and retains families and grows the area’s lifelong citizens. However, the question of closing is not a one and done conversation—school staff, political leaders, and state budgets all change the equation.
Cleaves has seen students who love the area stay or come back for work.
“The broadband isn’t incredible, but people are working from the area. It’s all interrelated.” In looking ahead, he says, “Our hope for the future here is almost 100 percent dependent on home feeling like a good place. If you lose the school, you lose that.”
A study by Dreier and Goudy in 1994 came to similar conclusions when it looked at rural Iowan towns that kept or closed their high schools. They showed that towns with high schools gained population over two decades while those without lost population.
Questioning the future of East Grand School brought the area’s community together to think more deeply about the economic intersections and the area’s potential. The conversation never stopped. Recently, a group of citizens launched the East Grand Economic Council. Their vision is that “by 2030, the Greater East Grand Region is a stable, unified constellation of remote, rural, welcoming communities that collaborate to attract and retain people of all ages to live, work, visit, and play.”
While the question initially circulated around the school, it opened the door to larger conversation and a comprehensive look to the future.
Lisa Millette is a community development officer with the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. She works on climate and energy, marine economy, and small business issues.