Minnesota students head across state line for schoolby Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio
Many rural school districts struggle with declining enrollments. The communities have an aging population and there are some really old school buildings. The schools that were once considered the town's economic engine, are now more reflective of the problems. While there are many solutions for these issues, one western Minnesota district is looking across the state border for its best fix.
On the Minnesota/South Dakota border — Lake Benton's school sits on top of a hill overlooking the town. It's a hodge-podge building that all began with a 90-year-old, four-story brick school.
Over the years there have been add ons - additional classrooms, a lunch room and gymnasium.
Principal Summer Panconen walks on hardwood floors that send an echo down the empty hallways. Several rooms are dark and unused.
"That's one reason the students are going elsewhere," Panconen says, "because we don't have the course offerings anymore because of budget cuts."
There aren't as many course offerings because there aren't many students. Currently 172 students are enrolled at Lake Benton in K-through-12th grades.
There are many extra curricular classes no longer offered, no language courses, no advanced math or science.
Projections show a continued decline in enrollment.
The decision to close the oldest part of the building came from the state fire marshall. It would cost too much to bring a 90-year-old building up to current fire safety codes.
The community rejected a consolidation plan with a nearby school district. Instead, the Lake Benton board of education decided to tear down the old building and offer classes for only kindergarten through sixth grade.
The older kids will go to a school in South Dakota. Sophomore Zach Trautman says it really doesn't matter to him where he goes to school because he has friends in every nearby town.
There's still disappointment he and his fellow Lake Benton Bobcats will have to trade in their mascot for an Elk.
"Most of my friends know everyone from Elkton so they're not that mad about it," Trautman says. "It would have been nice to finish our school here, but what can you do?"
Fifteen miles to the west, across the state line, is Elkton, South Dakota.
There's a newer school building with a community library, two gymnasiums and high tech computer rooms.
Here, the halls echo with the chatter from the lunch room. Tony Simons is the Elkton Superintendent.
"We're offering upper level math and science courses. We have a full time family and consumer science teacher and a very active FFA program," Simons says. "We have a large offering of agriculture classes that other schools may not be able to provide."
Simons says both Elkton and Lake Benton will benefit from a new ten-year tuition agreement.
Part of what makes this arrangement complicated has to do with money and state funding formulas.
Minnesota pays more money educating each student than South Dakota does. That means when Minnesota kids go to school across the border, the district pays the South Dakota rate and keeps the change.
Lake Benton will keep about $2,000 per student which will help the smaller district retain some of its elementary programs.
Simon says Elkton benefits because it also has seen a steady drop in the number of students.
"Our current Lake Benton agreement we feel is something that will stabilize our student enrollment and enable us to play for the future pretty effectively," the South Dakota superintendent explains.
Simons says he'd like Minnesota and South Dakota to have an education tuition agreement that would make arrangements like this easier on suffering border districts.
Simon says while both states embrace open enrollment within its borders it should be easier for students to also cross state lines.