Saving Two Districts at the Expense of One Man’s Job

by Kate Beem

When Don Wells returned to his rural Kansas roots three years ago, he was looking for change.

His father was ill, and Wells wanted to be close to him. So he left his job in the metro area of Wichita, Kan., and headed for home, where he became superintendent of a couple of small districts straddling two counties north of Topeka.

Only a handful of Kansas superintendents share districts, although that number likely will increase if consolidation doesn’t happen first, says Winston Brooks, president-elect of the Kansas Association of School Administrators and superintendent of the 49,000-student Wichita School District.

After three years shuttling between the 97-student Hillcrest School District in and around Cuba, Kan., and the 110-student North Central School District serving Morrowville, Mahaska and Haddam, Kan., Wells, 59, reached a conclusion along with his boards: the districts would be better served if they merged with larger nearby school districts.

“It’s all a matter of running out of kids,” Wells says.

Personal Sacrifice The top tier of Kansas counties — those stretching from Interstate 70 north to Nebraska — has slowly been losing population since the 1890s, says Mike Stegman, superintendent of the Washington School District, a 450-student district in Washington, Kan., about 70 miles southwest of Lincoln, Neb.

Faced with the rising costs of health insurance and building maintenance, faculty raises and fuel bills, Wells wasn’t sure how either district could remain solvent, especially given the fact that enrollment drops every year. So he did what any good leader would do: He saved his districts at the expense of his own job.

Last fall the North Central School Board voted unanimously to merge with the Washington School District, located about 15 miles to the east. Voters in both districts will decide this month whether to consolidate, which by state law means a new name for the merged district and new board members. Both boards have agreed to a name, the Washington County School District, and they’ve agreed to keep Washington’s colors and mascot. One North Central school will remain open as long as feasible, Stegman says.

Meanwhile, Wells’ other district, Hillcrest, has entered into talks with the Republic County School District, located 10 miles to the west in Belleville, Kan. Hillcrest is facing a $140,000 budget shortfall in the next school year, or roughly 10 percent of the district budget, because of declining enrollment. Republic County’s student population is four times that of Hillcrest’s, which still doesn’t equate to a large district. If the two merge, the new district would have about 500 students.

Yet Wells is sad to see the small districts close. He calls them “micro schools,” and he’s proud of what they can accomplish. New technology is easy to implement when you have to buy computers for only 100 kids, as opposed to 1,000 or more. Class sizes are small, and theoretically everyone has a chance to participate in activities because the more bodies the better.

Facing Reality But the reality is the children are disappearing. And Wells commends his two school boards for recognizing that and doing what’s right for students instead of clinging to the hope that things will change, that the future isn’t what it appears, and that district boundaries are sacred.

Wells likely won’t have a job by the end of the school year, but he knows he’s championed the right cause, he says.

“The kids are going to get a good education,” Wells says. “They’ll be viable districts for a lot of years.”