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Northwood-Hatton school districts may be at risk

The defeat of a plan to consolidate the Northwood and Hatton, N.D., school districts means a cooperative agreement both districts have enjoyed for several years may break up, officials from both districts say.

The defeat of a plan to consolidate the Northwood and Hatton, N.D., school districts means a cooperative agreement both districts have enjoyed for several years may break up, officials from both districts say.

The plan was overwhelmingly approved by Northwood voters Tuesday by a vote of 355-14 (96 percent), while Hatton rejected the plan by a vote of 234 to 173 (57.5 percent). The measure needed a majority vote in both districts to pass.

If approved, all students in grades nine through 12 would have attended school in Northwood, while seventh- and eighth- grade students would have been in Hatton, starting in the fall of 2008. The two towns, located 35 miles southwest of Grand Forks, are 12 miles apart.

Both districts' school boards will meet Tuesday to begin talks about alternate plans. Northwood may seek another neighboring district to join, which could end an agreement with Hatton to share teachers, sports teams and other resources.

"The board will need to decide if it wants to look somewhere else," Northwood Superintendent Paula Pederson said Wednesday.

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Consolidation plans have brought tension between residents of both towns.

Proponents of the plan say they were shocked when a last-minute "no" campaign in Hatton swayed votes with inaccurate information.

Hatton residents opposed to the plan say it would have resulted in the inevitable loss of their school.

"We're concerned about the community," said Polly Bumgardner. "It's not something against Northwood."

Co-op continues

At least for next school year, business will go on as usual for the most part in both school districts, according to officials.

Northwood and Hatton's cooperative agreement will continue next school year, but the Northwood School Board will have to decide whether to continue for subsequent years, Pederson said. The agreement saves the schools money by sharing about 10 teachers and combining sports teams.

"Right now you're only paying half, so it does help," Pederson said.

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Officials will just have to look at what's best for the students, she said.

Other neighboring districts that might be candidates to consolidate with Northwood include Larimore, Thompson and Finley-Sharon, according to Don Piper, a consultant who facilitated the consolidation plan.

If the board wants to try again to consolidate with Hatton, it would probably take at least another year to comply with state requirements and bring it to a public vote, he said.

Hatton School Board member Kevin Wold said the board there plans to look into trying to bring the issue to a vote again.

"A couple of our elementary classes are below 10 (students)," he said.

Hatton Superintendent Kevin Rogers said the district will be OK financially for at least the next school year. He expects the budget will balance or only a slight amount of money may be deficit spent. The district has the option of refinancing one of its loans if needed, he said.

"But within the next two to three years, there may be some costs that need to occur for us to stay financially above water," Rogers said.

The district will need a school bus, and pay raises to teachers will be difficult to provide, he said.

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"Hopefully, we're going to continue to work with Northwood," Rogers said.

Bumgardner, a Hatton resident who opposed the plan, said people who voted against the consolidation want to keep the cooperative agreement.

"I have already heard rumblings that there are some in Northwood who are offended by the 'No' vote," Bumgardner said. "The 'No' vote has nothing to do with the community of Northwood or the people of Northwood.

"Co-oping has been beneficial and there is no reason to jump to the other end of the spectrum and end something that has been very good," she said.

Dorothy Flaten and Janet Green, Hatton residents who also opposed the consolidation plan, said it would have ruined their town. Flaten said she's willing to pay more, if that's what it costs to keep the school.

"I really think that if we lose our school, which is inevitable if we lose our high school, you could just as well roll up the streets," she said.

Piper, the consultant facilitating the plan, said it prohibits the Hatton School from being closed in the next five years and doesn't imagine either of the districts' schools closing in the next 10 years. A new school board with representatives from both schools that would have been created under the plan would need to vote to close the Hatton school, he said.

Declining enrollment eventually could cause the need for only one building, but "that's far down the road," Piper said. The plan clearly says that both schools will remain open, he said.

"My guess is that it will not be long before many Hatton community members, even some who voted 'No', will begin to realize the opportunity they have lost because of this vote," Piper said.

He's disappointed that he wasn't able to respond to Hatton residents' concerns, he said.

A few days before the election, the local Hatton newspaper published articles from residents both for and against the plan. It's the first time that any of the concerns were voiced, officials said. None were brought up at informational meetings or to committee members over the past year of the process.

Several Hatton residents contacted by the Herald, whose names were printed in the local paper as opposing the plan, declined to be named Wednesday.

Some people have been fearful to express their opinion, Bumgardner said.

"There's been a lot of angry responses that a lot of people have had to deal with from both sides," she said.

Ricker covers elementary and secondary education. Reach Ricker at (701) 780-1104, (800) 477-6572, ext. 104; or aricker@gfherald.com .

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