As the students return next week to the south-central Minnesota school, they face the task of academic performance. But they also have to figure out where to go next year.
Pizza day was a big hit recently at McLeod West School in Brownton, population 800. But the oddity here is that students have to eat in the building's main hallway.
That's because the part of the building that contains the cafeteria is falling apart and was condemned in August. A line of cafeteria tables now bisects an area normally reserved for socializing at lockers.
Principal Mike McNulty walks through the shuttered wing, which dates back to the 20's, pointing out former offices and classrooms. Hallways that once echoed with the screams of kids now quietly store old tables and desks that aren't needed anymore.
"There's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven rooms; and that storage area that we now can't use," said McNulty, while pointing to each room. "We lost a lot of space."
So much space, in fact, that there's no room for the high schoolers - so they spend their mornings at a neighboring district. The imagery of a dying school that can't even use its entire building is lost on no one, including Janice Goebels. She's served lunch here for 30 years and proudly recall that her mother was salutatorian here in 1932.
"It's sad," noted Goebels, while standing over a crate of milk to be distributed to the children. "Our students love this school. It maybe is not the newest but they love it."
“I wish we could go back a year and a half and start everything over.”Mark Hamm, Stewart resident
To better understand this district's swan song, though, you have to know the saga of two towns: Brownton and Stewart. Just 7 miles of Highway 212 separate them and for years, each had its own school and the two were fierce - if not friendly - rivals. But like many rural districts, they merged about 10 years ago when money got tight.
Brownton and Stewart officially became McLeod West in 1998 (they actually started sharing functions a few years before that). Old rivalry lines proved hard to erase, but at least each town still had a school - until a few years ago.
That's when the Stewart school was closed, despite claims by that town's people that their building was in better shape. Brownton argued it should stay open because was the only town with a still-growing population.
One woman in Stewart, who didn't want to be recorded, said 'those Brownton people have been big-footing us for years.' After the closure, many Stewart parents moved their children to neighboring districts. McLeod West has lost more than half its 400 students in two years, which Principal Mike McNulty says means a lot of lost state funding.
"You lose 150, 200 students you're talking millions of dollars right there. That's hundreds of thousands of dollars per year," he said, while sitting in an office that he shares with the district's part-time superintendent. "And your staff is still staying, your programs are still staying, your building is still here."
To help shed costs, McNulty took on four roles this year: Principal, athletic director, counselor, and Title 1 coordinator.
ONE OPTION LEFT
McLeod West now has a $2 million deficit on a $3 millionbudget. Throw in the crumbling school, and claims of poor management in the past, and the district was left with just one option: Pass a tax hike on the Nov. 4th ballot or close down.
It was around that time that the school's rag-tag football team - with just 19 players - was putting together a respectable 7-3 record and garnering national attention, from ESPN magazine and the CBS Evening News.
Supporters hoped the splash of media would boost their efforts.
In the end, most voters in Brownton voted yes; most in Stewart voted no. If it were just those two towns, the final tally would have been a slim approval. But the farm vote also went against the measure, which sank the levy.
Students like sixth grader Clydja Ockerman now have to figure out where to go next year. "The people here, they're really nice and the teachers are really great," Ockerman said, while sitting at lunch with classmates. "It just really stinks because I don't want to go to a new school."
McLeod and three of its neighbors are now discussing new district borders and what to do with McLeod's building, possessions and even its teachers. The nearby districts are Buffalo Lake-Hector; Glencoe-Silver Lake; and Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop - all districts with hypenated names that reveal they've gone through the consolidation process in the past.
A few blocks from McLeod West School, a few old timers at Brownton Congregational Church were filling paper bags with peanuts, fruit, and candy for the Sunday school kids.
One of them is 83-year old Chuck Warner - a current city councilman, and former mayor, justice of the peace, and school board member - who doesn't like the closure "one bit."
"When you don't have school, there isn't much left," said Warner, while sneaking a few peanuts for himself during the packing process. "There was a day each community had school, they had a creamery, had a newspaper, had a good thriving business district. And now we're down to where we don't have any of those things anymore.
"The school is probably [the] last thing to go that would help us to have a community here."
Downtown Brownton still has a small hint of life, but Warner fears that's doomed without a school, so he's joined a group trying to start a charter school. Warner's fears seem all the more plausible when you drive the few miles west to the now-school-less Stewart. Downtown there is filled with boarded up buildings. Only a grain elevator and Cactus Jack's bar and grill remain.
Mark Hamm has lived in Stewart for 12 years. He moved his own child to another district a couple years ago.
"I have all sorts of opinions on it, many people do, but I'm hanging my opinions up because we have to live next to each other and I think a lot of hurt has been done," said Hamm. "I wish we could go back a year and a half and start everything over.
"I'm sure there's people on both sides of the subject who wish that same exact thing."
But they can't go back. And come June, the hallway lunches will be done. And this part of Minnesota will have gone from having two districts with two schools - to no districts and no school - in a little more than 10 years.