September 2, 2014

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Rural schools must either change or decline PDF Print E-mail

My name is Mark Lounsberry and I have served as a board of education member for 24 years and just left the PORTA board one year ago. I have watched the process of the referendum unfold and I am not surprised by the defeat of this proposition. It is not my intention to make derogatory statements about individuals involved but I do want to express my thoughts on what just occurred and where do we all go from here.
I have a perspective on this issue that not a lot of people could have. I live in a community where the school has been closed for over 20 years and I have spent more years than that working with the mess that has become the Illinois education system. I am a conservative country boy who is saddened to see the plight of rural America. My family settled in the Oakford area in 1832, 50 years before Oakford came into existence. We have been here 182 years. I have a strong bond to this place and I like many who supported the consolidation have no burning desire to see our world change while buildings close and students move around to other towns. If our forefathers resisted change we would all still be in one room school houses with one teacher for all the grade levels. I simply accept the situation we are all in and see consolidation as one of the few tools we have to maintain a quality education for all of our kids.
There has been a steady decline of rural population for decades and with it a decline in the values and lifestyle of the thriving communities that once dotted our landscape. I wish for a way to stop the decline and return to those days when every community was bustling with local shops and businesses. But that is a problem much larger than what we can solve on a local basis. It is a change in our culture and what we view as important. Even in our rural communities we are obsessed with a desire for things to be convenient and instantaneous. In this day and age for many of us our most prized possession is our Smartphone or IPad. We want to live five minutes from all the things we want in life, instead of 15 or 20 minutes away from those things like those who live in Ashland or Petersburg. So families move to a place like Rochester or Chatham instead of Petersburg or Ashland. Those few minutes seem to be a big deal.
We use our electronic devices to purchase items online instead of from the local store because of convenience and price. Rural people all over America drive to larger cities to purchase everything from grocery items to clothing because of more choice and better price than what can be offered in our local shops. This process has been happening for many years and it is like a freight train that we can’t stop. Local businesses close their doors because local people spend their money elsewhere and then complain about the demise of their community. As these businesses close the jobs go with them and when the jobs leave, local people have to look for work in other places and they leave too. When our children grow up they must leave to find work and a new life. Most of them are not going to be able to stay in our small communities. Our farmers cannibalize one another and where there use to be a hundred farmers there are now ten. Our rural communities have been slowly dying for decades. Our communities are not dying because we are losing our schools, it is the other way around. Our schools suffer because our communities are dying from other causes.
My point in all of this is that we all desperately want to keep our communities alive and vibrant the way we remember them. I feel the same way. Therefore I can’t fault anyone for wanting to do everything in their power to hold onto our way of life. But some people have taken this to a place where it should never have gone. They are so focused on holding onto what they believe to be their identity that they are willing to either ignore the facts or to misrepresent them. For them the end justifies the means. This has meant slandering people’s reputation and trying to make it sound like PORTA is attempting to pirate the children of A-C in the dark of night only for their personal gain. It has been a sad display.  Every community has people who others look up to. There are doers and followers in this world and that is just the way it is. If you are one who others follow, you have a certain moral responsibility in life. I would hope you would do the right thing for the children who are going to live in a world that their parents never envisioned. What is the point of education if not to prepare our children for success in life, even if that means leaving our community because we can no longer offer them opportunities for work?
There are many major obstacles to rural survival and education. Most of the problems are not our fault and we can’t do much to fix them. So we need to do the things that we can do. We could have created some stability for first class education opportunities for our children through the consolidation. Anyone who denies this is not recognizing the facts. There are those who are satisfied with providing a little less or a just “good enough” education, if that is what it takes to not see a change in their community. This is all about change and either accepting it or rejecting it. It is about opening your eyes to a new and larger community. I am disappointed that rural life is changing but it does not remove the reality of dealing with it because it is not going away. I will just say in defense of the A-C “no” voters, that if PORTA were the ones voting to move their high school kids to another town there would be the same negative reaction against consolidation we have seen from a lot of folks at A-C. There would be people who would think of every reason in the book to avoid this change in their community. It is not an isolated incident. This happens in almost every consolidation effort no matter where it is. And literally years of graduating classes will suffer a decline in their quality of education for the sake of keeping the same name on the front door of their school.
There were many reasons put forth to not support consolidation. There were accusations made about the financial problems of PORTA. The facts tell us that PORTA will retire their bond debt two years before A-C will pay off theirs. PORTA sold $3 million in bonds to reestablish a healthy balance in their working cash fund to have as a safety net. They did it without a net raise in the cost to taxpayers. Selling working cash bonds is common practice in school finance. It is not mismanagement. It is not a “massive debt” or budget problem as it has been characterized.  There are a number of other financial issues that I could point out that were misrepresented by those opposing consolidation. I will just leave it at that. My goal in this letter is not to drag anyone through the mud.
The simple truth is that consolidation would create student population that would allow for a broader and more advanced curriculum and stop the weakening of our class offerings for both communities and do it at a savings to the people of the A-C district. It is not a gimmick, it is the truth. The efficiencies of consolidation make this possible. It is a simple business model that is universal. The more product you can produce for the money invested the more efficient you will be. A-C has the 4th highest tax rate in west central Illinois. It is not very efficient and this is also a fact. PORTA is not as efficient as it needs to be either. Consolidation would have addressed this for both communities. Will consolidation fix it forever? No, the underlying problems of underfunding by the state remain for possibly a long time. We can only fix the things we can do something about, and we could have done something to secure a quality education for our children for a long time through consolidation. By voting no to the consolidation we have done nothing but guarantee a continued struggle to keep what we have. You can mark my words that A-C will see a string of half-measures, shared programs, online learning without the important benefit of a certified teacher or mentor, your students driving themselves to vocational classes for the ones lucky enough to get enrolled before the money runs out, and a general reduction in curriculum offerings. A-C has already been doing much of this and PORTA will be looking at cutting programs too.
Consolidation is always an emotional issue and people tend to hear what they want to hear. It is prevalent in today’s world of social media and blogs that news is sometimes nothing more than opinion pieces. What I have written here is my opinion based on the facts as presented to us by the COT and my personal experience in education. Many will chose to ignore it because it is not what they want to believe. We all tend to watch the news source that agrees with what we want to be told. So all those people who want things to never change and wish life could continue on in the same way it did in times past will seek opinions that tell them they can keep their past. It is human nature.
At some point in time reality will overwhelm our desire to avoid change. State funding will not return in full strength any time soon, if ever. Our state and federal governments have mortgaged our future for instant gratification at the ballot box and now the bill is coming due and the money was spent long ago. The budgets for PORTA and A-C will continue to be strained because of inefficiencies. Class offerings will continue to decline. Our graduates will struggle to compete in college and in the workplace, their opportunities will diminish. Struggling school districts with diminishing curriculums will not attract new families. Our communities will not grow. People’s desire for convenience to be closer to Springfield and the prospect of superior curriculums will attract families to Rochester and Chatham, not Ashland and Petersburg. We can’t move our towns closer to Springfield so we are left with helping each other to provide a first class education that will provide opportunity for our children to compete in the world and possibly attract new families to our communities. Neither school district can do this on our own any longer. We need each other. Avoiding consolidation will not return our communities to their former glory nor keep pace with the modern world, or even what we were doing five years ago. I feel we are doing our children a disservice by clinging to our vision of what we want the world to be instead of reacting to what the world is.

Mark Lounsberry