CLAFLIN — For more than a decade, Wilson and Central Plains High Schools have been united under the same administration as USD 112, with separate colors, mascots, activities and athletic programs.
On Monday, the Central Plains Board of Education, meeting in the Central Plains gymnasium in Claflin, voted 5-2 to have Wilson’s grades 7-12 students attend school in Claflin for the 2023 school year- 2024. According to $112 Superintendent Greg Clark, the move would help reduce staffing inequities, equalize enrollment and boost athletic programs at both schools.
The move would empty the Junior-Senior High School building, which would be retained as elementary classes would still attend school in Wilson.
The consolidation motion was presented by Tamara Dody, Vice-Chair of the Board.
Dody had presented a similar motion combining all of the extracurricular activities of both schools for the 2022-23 school year, but that motion was defeated by a 4-3 vote. A follow-up motion, presented by the board member of administration Allison Koch, has been confirmed for administrators and staff to eventually combine the two schools’ athletic programs in the future.
“I feel like it’s the effort of this board and the administrative staff as well as the previous school board to make the best of our tough hurdles,” Dody said Monday. “We are all empathetic and understand that the large geographic area of $112 presents unique circumstances. However, we cannot use this as an excuse not to have to make tough decisions and have a clear plan for our district going forward.
A bumpy road to consolidation
School consolidation in Kansas has always been a mix of complexities, ever since state-mandated mergers aimed at “unification” have seen school patrons anguished over the loss of school identity in rural areas. While those consolidations were mandatory, today’s mergers are voluntary, but no less emotional for cities caught in what they perceive to be the losing end.
In 2012, a panel established by Governor Sam Brownback looked at district efficiency, with the possibility of regionalized administration. Among the stark realities, state legislators such as Rep. Don Hineman, Dighton, a Republican from western Kansas, noted that rural schools are victims of economies of scale; a declining student population means a decline in state aid available and, down the road, consolidation is the inevitable end result.
“It’s probably easier to achieve some consolidation in some people’s minds, by adjusting funding for small school districts and starving them to the point where they’re forced to consolidate,” Hineman said.
The path to 112 USD
The state-mandated consolidation brought Holyrood and Bushton together in the same district and formed $328. School districts of Quivira Heights, Wilson, and Claflin became Central Plains US$112 in 2011.
Prior to the pandemic, $112, like many rural districts in the state, faced population losses affecting budget decisions. In 2019, talks about budget cuts drew 212 clients to a board meeting as personnel issues were debated ahead of the 2019-20 school year. An option to take students from Wilson by bus to Claflin was introduced as a budget leveling measure. A survey of Wilson students at this time indicated that a large percentage would choose to attend school at Ellsworth, Russell or Sylvan-Lucas. Only four students surveyed indicated that they would attend CPHS.
Moving students from 7-12 Wilson to Claflin would involve a commute of approximately 30 minutes. Clark noted that district staff worked to create and estimate transportation costs for student transportation, including extracurricular activity routes.
At Monday’s meeting held at Central Plains High School in Claflin, patrons wearing Wilson School colors sat as a group to hear the discussion ahead of the board’s decision. While several council members expressed the view that a secondary school for the district was a positive, ways to achieve unity remained sticking points in the discussion.
Board member Roger Robinson said a large percentage of staff at Wilson School – and Central Plains as well – are on “pins and needles”.
Koch noted, “I think one thing we can all agree on is that every community is passionate about our district.
“We need to stop looking for opportunities to widen the gap and focus on opportunities to close the gap between our communities.”