The last hurrah for a Minnesota school districtby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
One school in west-central Minnesota is getting ready to close, for good.
This is the last week of class for the McLeod West School district, about an hour's drive west of the metro. It's shutting down next month because of financial problems.
McLeod County, Minn. — It really has been like any school in its last days of class, but every day brings another 'last' something.
The baseball team made the playoffs - but an exciting win in the final inning last week marked the final home game ever for any Falcons sports team.
A group of students practiced a song for this upcoming weekend's graduation, but with the knowledge that they're among the last two dozen or so people who will ever get a McLeod West diploma.
And seniors were taking photos of the last crop of McLeod students who will ever carry those fun titles like "class clown" or "most likely to succeed."
As yearbook advisor, one extra thing Sue Maiers had to do this year was gather forwarding addresses. She normally passes them out at school when they're delivered in the fall.
"The last couple years I've been telling the kids 'you don't know if this is the last, or one of the last,'" noted Maiers. "'Keep that in mind each time you do this: This isn't just one more, it might be the last.'"
But even with such change at hand, there's also a sense of normal, especially when you compare it to the uncertainty that filled the halls last November.
That's when the last in a series of levies failed that would have raised property taxes enough to keep the school solvent. That failed levy truly was the last straw - the district has $2 million in debt on a $3 million budget.
The months since have involved McLeod West and its three neighbors, Glencoe-Silver Lake, Buffalo Lake-Hector and Gibbons-Fairfax-Winthrop, ironing out a consolidation plan that voters made official with their approval a few weeks ago.
Most students and teachers know where they'll end up next year, so some - like student Lukas Neubarth - are ready already.
"We've heard that people in our community are saying they're kind of sick of this and they want to get it over with and move on," said Neubarth, who added he agrees with that thought.
But it wasn't until a vote a few weeks ago that the consolidation was official enough to move into the next phase.
Principal Mike McNulty doesn't yet have a job for next year. But he's too busy figuring out what to do with all the stuff; like desks and computers, how to finalize the finances and what to do with all that paperwork.
"Normally we have certain reports due - most are end-of-summer/fall reports, and everything is for the year coming," said McNulty. "Well, now what do we do? We don't have a year coming so do we just wrap everything up and say we're done, or do we have to do a final report?
"Those questions have to be answered - that will be the busy-ness."
Details like these have come up before. McLeod West currently has just one school building, in the town of Brownton. A few years ago, they shut down the school in Stewart.
The city now owns that building, Jim Pessek helps oversee its upkeep. He notes class photos hanging on the wall from when it was Stewart High as he walks through the empty halls.
"It's our history - it's our graduates," he said. "That's the thing people asked about the most: 'What about the graduation photos, what about the trophies and such?'
"The trophies were actually in the basement for years, they weren't even on display until we got the place back."
There's an effort back in Brownton to open a charter school that would keep a school in town, but with a new name. McLeod West is going away, no matter what.
But as students and staff enjoy their final days at McLeod West School, there's one bit of legacy that will outlast them, for exactly five years.
When school districts dissolve, their debt does not get transferred to any new district. That means homeowners within the current McLeod West boundaries will automatically be levied a tax increase to pay off the district's debt, no voter approval necessary.
And because of the way that tax is levied, some landowners - especially farmers - will likely see a larger tax increase than they would have seen if last November's levy had passed and the school had stayed open.
- Morning Edition, 05/27/2009, 7:25 a.m.