Commentary: The Cost of Rural School Consolidation
On paper, consolidating South Robeson County High School in rural North Carolina might make sense. But how do we account for the intangible losses like community identity, cohesiveness, and social investment?
A few weeks ago, the Robeson County, North Carolina Board of Education voted to close South Robeson High School, my alma mater. The school currently serves Rowland, an old rail town with a population of approximately 1,000 people, and the outlying rural areas.
In Robeson County, people identify with their local communities, an allegiance often fortified by high school attendance. Losing the high school means losing a part of the community’s identity, an irreparable tear in the social fabric that may never heal. It also means creating perpetual outsiders of the students who will be siphoned off to other local schools, away from their community and their lifelong friends.
For me, closing the high school symbolizes the county giving up on the community where I grew up. I learned so many lessons in the halls of South Robeson High School. As president of the school’s Beta Club and the Native American Student Association, I learned about leadership, the value of public service, and what it means to give back to your community. These lessons were amplified by the fact that I was actually serving my own community, a lesson that will be lost on the students who would have to attend schools in other communities.
I also learned about disparities in access to educational opportunities, even within the same school district. My high school did not have AP classes or a plethora of extracurricular activities; funding did not allow for any of that. I hoped that one day the school board would allocate more staff and money to my home community so students could reach their full potential. Now, that may never happen, a fact that fills me with profound sadness.
In making their decision, the school board cited a decline in attendance. The board also cited a $2 million budget shortfall that needed to be closed “immediately.” The population data support this decision. According to the latest American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, since the 2010 Census, the population has declined in the schools’ service areas. The residents tend to be older than the rest of the county, a trend with troubling implications for the number of children entering the local schools. On paper, it might make sense to close these schools and focus on the parts of the county that are growing, especially considering the dire state of the finances of the public schools of Robeson County.
Robeson County is not alone in facing these tough decisions. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, there were 2,700 fewer rural schools in the 2015-2016 school year than existed just a decade prior.
When a rural school closes, it affects the entire community. In fact, according to a study by the Urban Institute, the impacts of a school closure are most acutely felt in rural communities, which often lack the wraparound services needed to compensate for the hole in the community a school closure creates.
However, what works on paper may have troubling implications in reality. At a community meeting on July 8th, students, parents, and community members voiced their concerns to the school board. The Town Clerk for Rowland noted that closing the high school would kill the town. Already an impoverished town that has never recovered from the decline of its initial industry, the railroad, it would lose one potential draw to both businesses and residents – easy access to a high school. Without the ability to attract new businesses and residents, the town’s economic woes would continue to grow. That also represents a bit of a paradox. In order to grow, you need resources. To grow, you need resources.. This is especially true in public education, which is usually funded by local property taxes. If residents leave and property values decline because of lack of economic development (or even access to a high school), the remaining local schools are going to suffer. Shutting down the high school would almost certainly exacerbate the current issues that the town is facing.
For a moment, the story appeared to have a happy ending. The day after the public hearing, the Robeson County Board of Education voted to reopen South Robeson High School for the coming year. However, there was a huge caveat. The high school would also house students from Rowland Middle School, meaning grades 6-12 would have to attend school in a facility designed for only four grade levels.
But even this measure of good news turned out to be fleeting. On July 19, the board reversed itself and voted to close South Robeson High School after all.
Christopher Chavis is a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. His article, “The Past, Present, and Future of Rural Northern New England: A Study of the Demographics and How It Affects the Rural Lawyer Shortage,” is forthcoming in the University of Maine Law Review.