study serves as important starting point

Monday, May 19, 2003

It's been a long time coming, but finally the southwestern school districts in Nebraska are cooperating on a wide-ranging study which could revolutionize the way education is provided to students in this vast, but thinly populated region.

After more than 75 years of continuing school closings and consolidations, the six remaining districts from McCook west to the Colorado state line are pooling funds to pay for a feasibility study regarding possible reorganization.

Joining in the landmark study are Wauneta-Palisade School District, Hitchcock Unified School System, Hayes Center School District, Dundy County School District, Chase County High School System and McCook School District.

By separate votes, all the southwest school boards have agreed to hire Dr. Gerald Ehlers, a former superintendent from Ainsworth who now spends full-time as a consultant for superintendent searches and reorganization studies.

While consolidation of some of the districts is a possibility, even greater potential exists for cooperation among the districts for shared staffing, shared facilities and shared programs.

To a large extent in the past, school districts went their own separate ways until being forced to merge because of declining enrollments. The joining together -- over the years -- of the Parks, Max, Haigler and Benkelman schools in Dundy County is one example. Even more recently, the citizens of Southwest Nebraska have seen the joining of the Wauneta and Palisade districts, and the unification of the Stratton, Trenton and Culbertson districts in Hitchcock County. Hayes County, which for years has stood alone, and the larger districts in Imperial and McCook complete the multi-county education alignment.

This is not new work for Ehlers. Previously, he has done reorganization studies for the Wilcox and Hildreth districts in Kearney and Franklin counties, and the Grant and Wheatland systems in Perkins County. And, currently, he is at work on studies for the Neligh, Elkhorn and Valley schools west of Omaha, and the Wisner, Pilger and Pender districts in northeast Nebraska.

Whenever possible, school and community identities need to be preserved. But -- by being proactive in studying the needs of the entire area -- area schools may find new ways to cooperate, thereby keeping schools local, but still expanding opportunities for students while keeping costs in check. The study will not solve all the schools' problems. But it will serve as a starting point, providing ideas for meeting the constantly changing educational needs of Southwest Nebraska.

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