Walnut Grove, Minnesota, my hometown, has more school than it needs. Not more education, it’s doing just fine in that aspect, but it has more school space than the education mission requires. Walnut Grove isn’t unique. As rural Minnesota’s population ages and contracts, nearly every rural school district finds itself in a similar situation with aging, under-used, and increasingly empty school buildings.
Located in southwestern Minnesota, Walnut Grove is closer to Iowa and South Dakota than it is to the Twin Cities. Today, it’s part of the Westbrook-Walnut Grove Independent School District which, in turn, strategically partners with the adjoining Tracy Area Public Schools.
It’s an increasingly low population density area, with regional centers Marshall, Redwood Falls and Windom all 30-40 miles away. Comparatively, my Saint Paul City Council ward is more populous than all three big towns combined. Small is a virtue. It’s a strength, not a weakness. Large cities work to reduce the city’s scale, pursuing the community identity and familiarity that rural communities have in spades. But, small also has drawbacks.
Achieving economies of scale—the operating sweet spot where increasing output volume and decreasing average cost find maximum efficiency—grows harder as the market contracts. In schooling terms, educating students requires space. Space represents a fixed cost. Heating a school house basically costs the same whether one student attends or the place is packed.
An ideal economy of scale is an optimal balance of students, teachers, materials, support staff, and space. A sudden spike in student enrollment requires more of everything. Adding or losing a few students, on the other hand, is more readily absorbed.
Walnut Grove’s population was declining from a 1950 high of 890 to 599 in 2000. The Hmong community’s arrival helped boost numbers to 871 for the 2010 census. But, that’s in town. The countryside tells a different story as fewer farmers farm much, much larger farms. For school enrollment, fewer farm families mean fewer school-aged children. Enrollment declines yield excess building capacity.
When Westbrook and Walnut Grove schools merged, the school board located the high school in the Westbrook facility and the junior high in the Walnut Grove building. Each city maintained its elementary school. Demographic shift has altered that arrangement. Today, K-6 students gather in Walnut Grove while 7-12 students use Westbrook. This leaves the Walnut Grove building about half-full.
What do you do with half a school?
I’ve been listening to WWG Superintendent Loy Woelber contemplate this challenge for several years. He’s explored everything from turning a wing into a bed-and-breakfast (Walnut Grove is a childhood home of writer Laura Ingalls Wilder; more people visit each year than you might imagine) to using space as a business incubator. The school’s educational mission complicated and ultimately trumped non-educational, mixed-use proposals.
Now, WWG has a proposal that consolidates elementary grades into what was the elementary school wing of my youth. The school board would like to lease the old high school section to the Southwest/West-Central Service Cooperative, a non-profit service organization for area schools. It’s a smart idea—Walnut Grove is, relatively speaking, centrally located—but it also highlights the fundamental challenges facing WWG and all rural school districts. Fewer school-age children means reduced need for classrooms in 50 year-old buildings constructed during a population boom.
If the demographic trend continues, school districts will need fewer buildings to serve student populations. We see this trend most clearly in rural areas but it’s a statewide phenomenon. Unused buildings deteriorate quickly, burdening school districts with costly maintenance. School boards face hard choices between teaching kids and preserving an unused building. Closing a school building is more than a rational economic act; it strikes at the heart of small town identity.
Walnut Grove’s situation raises two questions. First, since schools are community functions, can we combine school and city or county buildings in rural areas? Second, and more broadly, how do we change people’s perspective, helping them to see rural Minnesota as an asset and not a liability?
Cities and counties are in the same boat as rural schools. All buildings, public and private, require regular capital reinvestment to function properly. Rather than insist on specialized, single-use facilities, let’s help rural communities combine functions that anchor towns while also performing educational and service missions. Administrative offices, for example, are administrative offices regardless of their location.
Reframing challenges as opportunity drives innovation. Rural schools and towns are finding practical public policy solutions that can and should guide state policy direction. Policymakers, pay attention; Minnesota is better and stronger as a result.