Thirty-odd years ago, I felt that Walnut Grove’s schools should merge with Tracy’s. I was a Walnut Grove high school student. My opinion didn’t carry the day. Thirty-odd years later, that merger is beginning to take shape.
What a difference thirty years makes.
With changing demographic patters accelerating, including the mid-1980s farm foreclosure crises, Walnut Grove did not stand idly by as the community’s percentage of school-aged kids shrank. They contemplated and discussed mergers with Tracy and Westbrook.
Tracy is seven miles west of Walnut Grove. Westbrook is ten miles south. Functionally, the travel time is the same, depending on where you want to go. Tracy is on the way to Marshall. Westbrook leads to Windom and Worthington. It’s a matter of orientation.
Westbrook, in the late 1970s, was slightly larger than Walnut Grove, now population 871. Tracy was larger still. Today, it has 2163 residents, down about 300 from my youth. Merging with Westbrook was seen as a merger; going with Tracy meant being subsumed. Even today, that perspective hasn’t entirely disappeared.
Walnut Grove paired with Westbrook and, after several years of living together, decided to marry. The Westbrook-Walnut Grove school district resulted.
Yet relentlessly, rural Minnesota’s demographic shift trends continued. Young people heading off to college were virtually guaranteed not to return. For those inclined to stay, jobs beckoned in Marshall and other county seat communities, not in Walnut Grove, pulling more folks away.
Fewer young people mean fewer young families having babies. Fewer babies mean shrinking school class size. And, with the State of Minnesota contributing fewer dollars to school costs over the past ten years, the declining class size problem compounds. A once adequately populated school district now struggles to deliver a good education.
Merger is back on the table.
Minnesota has small towns by design. Building railroads included platting a town every seven to ten miles. Most were purposefully scaled small, facilitating horse-drawn farm service and commerce appropriate to the mid/late 19th century.
Internal combustion engines changed everything. The automobile shrank distance just as the railroad before it but without rail’s overhead or limitations. Business concentrated in the larger communities, bypassing small towns. That trend hasn’t changed.
Farms haven’t stopped growing crops. Fewer farms grow more than ever. Those larger farms need different and more specialized services. The service providers pool in regional centers, creating jobs but helping to diminish small towns economic development potential.
School districts, geographically established, still have to educate kids. Fewer kids magnify the educational challenge as schools and families struggle with longer and longer bus rides and diminishing state financial support. Topping it off, the relentless population march away from small towns and adjacent rural areas hasn’t halted.
Growing up, Tracy schools included a couple of truly tiny towns—Garvin, Curry, Amiret—just as Walnut Grove schools covered Revere but without adding their names to the marquee. Today, the Tracy-Milroy-Balaton district serves families in three counties, Lyon, Redwood and Murray, and almost reaches Lincoln. WWG also covers parts of three counties, Redwood, Murray and Cottonwood.
On paper, merging the two makes sense. They’re contiguous and, at fundamental levels, are compatible. But the 10,000 feet view obscures a ground-level reality. Some kids face mighty long school bus rides to and from school.
Demographic trends don’t alter Minnesota’s need for strong public schools. If anything, those trends highlight the need. With Twin Cities’ and regional centers’ schools dominating the educational policy debate, as with so many things, it’s easy to overlook rural, small town Minnesota.
Living in Saint Paul, I understand the schooling complexities facing urban communities. I also know the unique challenges of rural areas. Consequently, I believe that it’s important for every Minnesotan to understand that small schools shoulder the same burden as big schools, just on a smaller scale.
TMB and WWG already share some extracurricular activities. This year they both moved to sharing a Superintendent. There may be more cooperation down the road and for smart reasons. Even still, I feel a pang of loss. It’s not a desire to recapture my youth or revisit woulda-shoulda-coulda moments. No, it’s my concern that Minnesota’s pattern of defunding its public schools will continue. That pattern makes life harder for every school district but it hammers some communities worse than others.
Minnesota rises and falls on our ability to pull together. We’ve built a great educational tradition. We’ve prospered because Minnesota’s public schools deliver on Minnesota’s expectations. Now, we’re trending the wrong way, cutting state investment in public education and pitting communities against each other. Poor choices only lead to poor outcomes. Moving Minnesota forward, including rural communities, requires adequate school funding. There’s no escaping that conclusion.