Edmore, along with rural schools around the state where enrollment is declining, faces an existential crisis in a new era of state budget cuts.
Frank Schill is the superintendent at Edmore, and he also serves as a teacher at the small school with an enrollment of 60 students and a senior class of three. He’s been an instructor for decades, and his career dedication to rural schools is tough to question.
After all, he also drives the bus.
Schill is worried that his school is in trouble. That’s because Edmore, with such a small number of students already, is suffering from declining enrollment. Exacerbating that reality, according to Schill, is that funding that was once allocated to schools like his was lost to property tax relief.
“Legislators have received continued pressure from taxpayers who want to pay less taxes,” Schill said. “They responded to that.”
The result, Schill says, is that his district and others with declining enrollment receive far less state aid than they used to.
“The formula fundamentally changed. The result was that it cost districts like mine with declining enrollment about $13,000 per student of foundation aid,” Schill said.
The Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund was designed to aid the state’s public schools in the event of a revenue shortfall.
However, Schill says that the formula change means that the fund will likely not be able to keep his school afloat in the near future.
“The Foundation Aid Stabilization Fund could help, but they would have to do a major adjustment to the formula to keep small schools open,” Schill said. “No matter how I crunch the numbers, we probably won’t be around in six years, if that.”
Schill and superintendents at other small schools with declining enrollments can, of course, appeal to their tax base for support.
Though that’s been done in the Edmore district in the recent past, Schill indicates that another school levy probably isn’t realistic in the near future.
“If you go to the voters, they can approve increased taxes. Edmore did that back in 2012, and the voters approved about 20 mils for operating expenses,” Schill said. “As we continue to decline in enrollment, we would need to go to voters again down the road.
“I just don’t think the board has an appetite to do that,” Schill added. “I’m not sure the voters have the appetite to increase taxes any more.”
Voters spoke last election, turning North Dakota, a red state already, even more red. That means that a property tax hike for any reason, including funding for rural schools, is unlikely to happen.
The political imbalance in the state may have swung too far in one direction when it comes to providing services, Schill says.
“I’m a Republican, but I also know that the imbalance has made (legislators) very conservative - possibly too conservative,” Schill said. “At some point in time you have to provide services, and school is one of those services.”
Schill also noted that school districts around the state have decreased for a century. He believes that state legislators are fine with reducing the number of rural schools in North Dakota.
“The decrease in districts around the state has been going on since the 20s. I believe, legislatively, that they’re letting that process continue,” Schill said. “At some point I think the pendulum is going to swing too far, and legislators are going to have to address small but necessary schools that have to exist geographically.”
Schill worries that rural schools could shut down to the point that only one school district per county remains.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if it gets down to about one school per county,” Schill said. “If Starkweather and Edmore were to close, which I think probably could be six or seven years away, Ramsey County is going to be down to just Devils Lake.”
The Journal reached out to state school superintendent Kirsten Baesler for comment on the future of rural schools, but she was unable to respond by the time of this writing.