What are the costs of losing rural schools?

LATELY I’ve been mulling on my contempt for the Texas Legislature’s abdication of rural schools. I’ve concluded my contempt is rooted in my deep appreciation for being a product of a rural school in Abernathy, Texas — pop. 2,904.

The first time I met my varsity basketball coach, he was talking about what Jesus had done in his life.

There, in a small, second-floor Sunday school room, Wayne Riley was miraculously keeping the rapt attention of sixth-grade boys. We quickly discerned the tears he was failing to choke back were real. In the years to come, the convictions that so easily made his cheeks quiver molded us as young men.

The most intimidating figure in our high school world was a quiet-spoken woman, slender with impeccably permed silver hair. To play ball and earn a diploma, you had to go through Bettie Hardin, who’d been demanding mathematics performed perfectly for some 45 years. As perfectly as she made change in the ticket booth at our games, with the same precision she played the “Doxology” at church each week. For us, she was proof that God — the sovereign of the Old and New Testaments — puts people on this earth to be teachers.

On Monday nights, we gathered in Ms. Hardin’s classroom. There Gid Adkisson, a retired teacher and superintendent, gladly rescued those of us capsized in a sea of algebra and trigonometry. Turns out Gid had been rescuing people for decades, starting with leading his platoon onto Utah Beach in 1944. It instills untold confidence in a boy when a man who advanced across Europe against Nazis, a man decorated with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, says you can whip the Pythagorean Theorem.

Gerald Kelley was our ag mechanics teacher, and a master of making men. He taught us to overhaul Chevy 454 engines. Mr. Kelley overhauled me on a couple of occasions when he’d heard my weekend actions were incompatible with what I’d said as student council president and a youth group leader. He hired me one summer to dig post holes on his place. This is work I recommend everyone do once. But only once.

The great tragedy of my adolescence was the sudden death of my grandmother Betty. Harold Bufe was a band director with a bad farming habit. He farmed near Hale Center, where my grandmother had been a junior high secretary. Mr. Bufe, like all great educators, adhered to a philosophy of high challenge and high support. When my little busted heart couldn’t blow my baritone, he knew why and took me aside. He bent down and said, “I know it hurts. But I want you to do something for me: I want you to think about how lucky you are to be her grandson.” I squeezed a few more tears, then joined back in on a lackluster rendition of “Barbara Ann.”

These are just a few stories. They aren’t unique; similar stories can be told in urban and suburban schools. But they are extremely common in rural Texas. Which is the point.

There are costs to losing rural schools, and hardly anyone is doing the math.

The state shifting 8 percent of its share of public education to local property taxpayers over the last decade is an unsustainable trend in small communities. Where Main Street is declining and commodity prices in surrounding fields are lagging. These immediate costs are the consolidation of rural schools and, thus, the social and economic decimation of rural communities.

But what’s the cost of state subsistence dollars sent in to offset decimation for decades after the school district is gone?

Moreover, reneging on the Teacher Retirement System will inevitably come at the cost of violating the trust of quality educators. But what are the future costs of losing thousands of Gid Adkissons all over Texas?

And what are the costs of communities losing extraordinary people with teaching certificates sowing seeds of extraordinariness into the next generation of citizen taxpayers? In many instances, poor kids from homes with high hopes, ordinary kids who could easily be overlooked. Kids like my brother Michael and me. (Michael is a missionary now.)

More and more in West Texas, particularly in the larger cities, I hear something like: “Losing these small schools is just the natural progression of things.” This concession is as historically alien as it is damning. Such “progressions” begin in the country and inevitably roll into the city — especially when your city is located on the side of Texas with less than 20 percent of the total population.

You don’t need to be a student of Ms. Hardin to quickly figure out that we can’t afford the costs of losing rural schools.

Jay Leeson can be heard on the Other Side of Texas airing Mondays from 5-7pm on AM 580. Email him at jayleeson@gmail.com or on Twitter @jayleeson.

This column first appeared in the Lubbock AvalancheJournal.

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