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TOWNER COUNTY, N.D.: Merger meets little resistance

TOWNER COUNTY, N.D. -- When the timeline was released recently for the consolidation of the Cando and Bisbee-Egeland (N.D.) school districts, the news was met with little more than a murmur.

TOWNER COUNTY, N.D. -- When the timeline was released recently for the consolidation of the Cando and Bisbee-Egeland (N.D.) school districts, the news was met with little more than a murmur.

"It's not at the top of the conversation because everyone assumes it's going to happen," said Pat Flanagan of Egeland. "What can we do about it? There are no other choices."

There's wide acceptance even in Bisbee, where the K-12 school will close and all students will go to Cando.

"They don't care for it, but they know it has to happen," Deb Klier, the manager of The Chocolate Shop cafe in Bisbee, said about her customers.

"People know the kids deserve more. We're ready for it."

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They're so ready that many residents of Cando, Bisbee and Egeland thought it already had been approved. A plan, developed by consultants, has been approved by the school boards. But it will take a November vote of the two school districts' residents to make the reorganization official.

By all accounts, the November vote will be one-sided in favor of becoming one school district beginning with the 2008-09 school year. The resignation comes from a combination of history and the harsh reality of enrollment numbers.

History of cooperation

History shows that joining a long-time rival in a school can be difficult. However, the shock of partnerships has worn off in sparsely populated regions such as Towner County, where alliances have been formed for more than two decades. The Bisbee-Egeland people have been through this before.

Bisbee and Egeland each had K-12 schools until they combined in 1980. In 2002, the Egeland Elementary was closed and all students went to Bisbee. And Cando and B-E have been part of varied sports cooperatives with different area schools.

This year, Cando and B-E are together for all sports, partly because of a shortage of athletes and partly to grease the skids of the reorganization. They're called the North Star Bearcats for sports; North Star also will be the school name when they're consolidated. The Bearcats nickname is a hybrid of their former nicknames -- Cubs for Cando and Panthers for Bisbee-Egeland.

The school logo -- a replica of the former Minnesota North Stars hockey team logo -- and the nickname logo are painted on the walls of both schools.

Falling enrollment

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Support also comes because of an enrollment plunge. B-E has only 57 students in grades K-12, in contrast to 154 just 10 years ago. Two grades have no students and kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders are all in one classroom with just six students.

Cando has 202 students, compared with 335 just 10 years ago and 606 at its peak in 1969. Cando also has incentive to consolidate since state projections say its enrollment in 2017 would be 79 students if it were alone.

Students have been the big losers because of the decline, administrators say.

"The enrollment decline has really affected the foundation aid payments we get from the state," said B-E Superintendent Brent Bautz. "We've had to use our reserve funds to compensate for receiving less money.

"For curriculum, we're down to the bare bones, with very few electives. It's hard for us to replace a teacher from a core area who leaves. If we lose a math teacher and there are 25 openings in the state and 13 applicants, we aren't going to win that battle."

Bautz said a consolidation priority is to add electives in vocational, agriculture, business, foreign languages and college-level classes. That will be possible without raising taxes because of a bigger tax base and fewer employees overall. The only downside of the consolidation, residents say, is that teachers and staff members will lose jobs.

Spirit of cooperation

A go-slow approach has helped gain acceptance, according to Bob Denison, owner of the Towner County Record-Herald.

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"They've held lots and lots of meetings and will hold lots and lots more," Denison said. "At the meetings, the School Board members are mixed up. It's not the Cando board on one side and the Bisbee-Egeland side on the other.

"That's just one of the symbolic things they've done to make things easier for everyone."

Often, the bigger school can be the bully and insist on concessions. While Cando will have the only school, it hasn't flexed its muscle.

"We've been treated as an equal partner all along, and that's why it's working out great," Bautz said.

The two schools also will share prom this spring. "We put the kids into a room and they worked it out themselves," Bautz said.

Symptomatic of times

For Klier, Denison and Flanagan, all who have spent most of their adult lives in the area, the situation is met with equal portions of resignation and sadness.

"It's symptomatic of our times," Denison said.

The times include fewer farm families, fewer young families and smaller families.

"All of our kids leave, including my kids," Klier said. "There's no reason for them to stay here."

Flanagan came to Egeland to teach high school math in 1970, around the time when Towner County schools were at their peak, with enrollments triple -- or more -- of what they are today.

"This is the way rural North Dakota is going," Flanagan said. "Sadly, the days of many other rural schools are numbered unless something happens."

But this one is less painful than many.

"A lot of times, there's bitterness," Flanagan said. "From all I've heard, this will be a really smooth transition."

Bakken reports on local news and writes a column. Reach him at 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or rbakken@gfherald.com .

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