Rural challenges: Money and mandates

Rural schools face a variety of challenges — and not surprisingly, most of them come back to money.

Kathy Canfield-Davis
Kathy Canfield-Davis interviewed more than 50 rural administrators to get a flavor of the challenges facing rural schools.

Resources are scarce, as a limited staff copes with an array of state and federally mandates. A poor economy affects parental involvement, and forces some families to flee small towns in search of jobs. Some local administrators fear their schools are becoming a burden, as districts go back to patrons with supplemental levy requests.

One plus: In many rural districts, voters are approving levies anyway. “People do sacrifice to get the money to the schools,” said Kathy Canfield-Davis, an associate professor at the University of Idaho.

Recently, Canfield-Davis compiled a study on the challenges facing rural Idaho districts. She shared her findings Monday at the Idaho Association of School Administrators’ annual convention in Boise.

Many of the state’s superintendents — in Boise for four days of meetings and workshops — fall under the heading of “rural administrators.” Sixty-four of the state’s 115 school districts, and 46 of the state’s 47 charter schools, had a 2014 enrollment of under 1,000.

The smaller size presents unique challenges for rural district, but the pressure to pass a supplemental levy is shared by most Idaho districts, large and small. Ninety-four school districts had supplemental levies on the books in 2013-14.

In a rural community, a levy can make up 20 to 30 percent of a district’s general fund budget, often collected against a limited property tax base.

The workload — and the myriad state and federal mandates — is an obstacle for rural districts. Even if administrators can persuade voters to approve a levy, compliance poses a time management challenge.

That finding struck a chord with Orofino district Superintendent Robert Vian. He questioned why all districts need to write strategic plans — whether they’re tiny districts such as Avery, with 16 students, or massive districts such as West Ada, with more than 36,000 students. And state officials aren’t always sympathetic.

“I would rather deal with the feds than the State Department of Education,” Vian said.

Greg Alexander at the State Department of Education told the group that his agency is trying to work with rural districts, “but obviously we’re not doing enough.” He pointed out that Idaho is part of a consortium with Washington and Oregon, focused on rural schools issues. Genesee and Glenns Ferry are part of the group, Alexander said, but the state would like to get several more districts involved.

Canfield-Davis based her study on face-to-face interviews with 25 rural superintendents and 26 principals in North Idaho. And the interviews illustrated the contradictory nature of running rural schools.

Small districts have a greater sense of community, and students are less likely to fall through the cracks. But parental involvement is a challenge in small districts, as parents struggle to make a living. The close-knit nature of a small town can be a plus — or it can be draining.

Two comments illustrated the dichotomy.

One rural Idaho school administrator called the job the best job in education, anywhere.

Another described the job in more colorful terms: like juggling beach balls in a hurricane, while running in the mud.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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