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Rural schools are struggling to keep the lights on

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At Stockbridge Middle School in rural Mich., a group of eighth graders looks uncomfortable in their too-big gym uniforms.Right now, they’re playing basketball and volleyball. 

Next year, this school will be shut down, and the gymnasium is the only thing that will still be open to students.

Dan Steffe is the gym teacher. In his words: “Aughghgh! It’s like, aughhh!”

Steffe has taught in this district for 35 years. He’s sad about the closing, and his job is on the line.

“One thing I’ll say, and I’m proud of this: Stockbridge, we’ve been preparing for this for a long time. We’ve been lean and mean for a lot of years, and that’s a fact,” Steffe says.

It’s true the school district here isn’t a big spender, and it’s not poorly managed. By every measure the state has, Stockbridge is a good school district. 

But Superintendent Carl Heidrich says closing a school and cutting staff is the only way the district can stay in the black.

Families are moving away for lots of reasons. Heidrich can rattle them off: “Unemployment, the housing market, commuting costs, gasoline costs.”

People aren’t leaving in droves. It’s more like a steady drip. Over the last decade, the schools here have lost about 350 kids, which is pretty typical for a rural district these days.

But each of those students takes about $7,000 in state aid with them — so the district’s budget has taken a $2.5 million hit.

“Unfortunately, it came to this,” Heidrich says.

The plan is to close the middle school, moving some of those kids to the high school, and some to the elementary. Heidrich says it’s worth it to help the school district avoid a deficit. When a school system is in deficit, the state can — and has — stepped in to take it over, or shut the whole thing down.

“We have to take care of our students, and we can’t wait on the state. There’s no guarantee of increased funding in the future. So, we have to take care of our own,” Heidrich says.

The irony? The schools are better now, even though money is tighter. They already outperform some of the bigger, richer districts nearby. Despite the whole budget crunch, people in Stockbridge are trying to stay positive. There is anger, but gym teacher Steffe says it’s directed outward.

“I know everybody here is working hard for the most part. You wonder what the state of Michigan is doing to education. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says.

Right around the corner from the middle school, at a small table in the village coffee shop, Chris Young is working on his laptop and taking a few calls. Young has a daughter in the district schools and says he’s willing to pay more in taxes if the district asks.

“You have to take care of your house-so to speak-or it will fall down around you,” says Young. “This is a sleeper community. Nobody’s coming to Stockbridge, so you have to have people who are committed to putting their kids first. And I see a lot of that going on.”

And like Stockbridge, there are many small towns across America where the population is shrinking, and the schools along with them.

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