Families raise $21,000 to keep historic school open

ALMO — An eight-day fundraising effort may have saved a 100-year-old Idaho elementary school for at least one more year.

The Almo Elementary School school — adorned with a quintessential and still-functioning bell tower — has served the children of Almo, a sleepy ranching community some 10 miles from Utah’s border, for more than 100 years.

But waning enrollment has jeopardized the K-3 school’s future. The Cassia County School Board last month voted 3-2 to close the school down — unless, that is, Almo patrons could raise enough money to cover a $21,000 shortfall.

Eight days after the vote, Almo patrons presented the district with a $21,000 check, prompting a likely reversal of the board’s decision.

“We still have money coming in from people who want to support the school in the coming years,” Almo parent Phil Christensen said, flashing a $107 check from a supporter in Nevada.

“My kids’ ancestors went to this school,” said Amber Tracy, who has had four children attend Almo Elementary.

‘It’s better than homeschooling’

Almo Elementary is a historical landmark in a tiny community that touts family values, nearby natural hot springs and a general store that dates back to 1894 and still churns out fresh rolls and cookies for those passing through.

Tracy and Christensen say the school’s educational value matches its historical significance.

“It’s better than homeschooling,” said Tracy, who lives across the street from the school.

Phil Christensen stands with his son, Jed Christensen. Phil helped lead a push to keep Almo Elementary open.

Tracy referenced the school’s low teacher-student ratio. Almo ended the 2018-19 school year with nine kids, a full-time teacher and a full-time aide.

Parents also prize the school’s close proximity, and camaraderie among kids who attend. “The kids just become close friends,” Tracy said.

Operating at a financial loss

Despite Almo’s benefits for local families, district officials have increasingly questioned the financial value of keeping the school open.

Idaho’s current K-12 funding formula uses average daily attendance to divvy out state dollars to public schools. With Almo’s enrollment regularly slipping to under a dozen students, administrators say the school doesn’t generate enough funding to pay for itself.

One of two classrooms inside Almo Elementary School.

“It’s difficult when the school operates at a financial loss,” Cassia County business manager Chris James told Idaho Education News.

James cited other challenges tied to keeping the school open, including difficulties finding a substitute teacher and the need to transport hot lunches to the school on a daily basis.

James acknowledged Almo’s low teacher-student ratio, but said its elementary teacher and aide could also be utilized elsewhere in the district. James also questioned how much the low ratio has improved student performance.

“I’m not sure that’s happening there,” James said.

The State Department of Education does not make public Almo’s standardized test scores because its low enrollment could lead to identifying a child.

Closing Almo down

Concerns over Almo’s future reached a boiling point during a May school board meeting, when trustees floated the idea of closing the school down.

The board tabled a final decision until its June 20 meeting, but the prospect of closing the school and busing Almo students nearly an hour to the district’s Raft River Elementary School was too much for some parents.

Almo Elementary’s school bus.

Tracy, whose youngest child will enter kindergarten next year, called a bus ride that long “simply too much” for a 5-year-old. Christensen worried the ride would subject his son, Jed, to the “sometimes inappropriate vocabulary” of older kids on the bus.

Following the May board meeting, Tracy, Christensen and two other Almo patrons discussed a multi-pronged push to pay for the school’s shortfall. Each parent started by texting 10 people for donations. One parent started a GoFundMe campaign. Another placed a donation jar in the local general store.

Money began to pour in. At the June 20 school board meeting, Almo patrons reported raising more than $10,000. Eight days later, following the vote to close the school, donations surpassed $21,000.

“The support we’ve received is pretty amazing,” Christensen said.

What’s next for the school?

James told EdNews that the district has received a $21,000 check from Almo’s parent-teacher organization.

Cassia County Superintendent James Shank said in statement that the added funds put Almo “in a position to remain open for the coming year,” though he wouldn’t comment on the school’s long-term situation.

Christensen rings the school’s outdoor bell.

Factors will be “re-evaluated at the end of the 2019-2020 school year,” Shank said.

Christensen acknowledged that the $21,000 likely buys the school just one more year. However, he pointed to a “couple thousand” dollars worth of donations already in place for next school year. He said parents are now better equipped to secure future funding through grants.

“We actually have some time to address the problem now,” Christiansen said.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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