- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

ELBA, Neb. (AP) - Above painted pictures of students participating in school activities, the wall of the cafeteria at Elba Public School reads, “Moments are short … Memories last forever.”

But for the 83 real students who pass beneath it every day, the looming saying might soon ring very true.

The Grand Island Independent reports (http://bit.ly/QSsZFx ) Elba Public School has an average daily enrollment of 25 or fewer students in ninth through 12th grades. Next year, it is on track to stay that way.

Because of a state law, however, that means the school might be forced to close its doors. Superintendent Mikal Shalikow and the school board are searching for options, from bringing in students to unifying or even consolidating with another school.

But while Elba’s issue is a question of how to keep its school open, as in many small towns, it is also a question of whether the community will survive.

And they’re running out of time.

“Without a school here,” Shalikow said, “I don’t know what would happen to Elba.”

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This isn’t the first time Elba has had this discussion, Shalikow said. Three years ago, they had a meeting about the same thing.

And it goes even further back, school board President Terry Spilinek said. They saw the low enrollment rolling in, he said, but the problem isn’t easy to fix.

The law states that if a school district has a fall membership or average daily membership at or below 25 students for two consecutive years, that school will become a Class I school. Because the state did away with Class I school districts in 2006, however, Elba’s school district would be closed and the land added to other districts, Spilinek said.

Elba’s four foreign exchange students and any students in the foster system or who are wards of the state do not count toward the total enrollment, Shalikow said. That leaves six students in each grade from ninth through 12th grades, making the total 24.

With eight eighth-graders slated to come in for 2014-15, he said, Elba is right on the edge.

If they can make it just a few years down the road, however, this won’t be a discussion, Spilinek said. Elementary enrollment is much higher, and those kids entering high school would boost enrollment well over what is required.

But that doesn’t matter to the law.

“They don’t look down the road at what you’re going to have,” Spilinek said. “They look at what you have now.”

And that isn’t enough. The district has long tried to attract students from other districts, such as North Loup-Scotia and St. Paul. Each year, however, they option in about as many as they option out. This year, Shalikow said, 29 optioned into Elba, and 22 optioned out.

The district is financially viable, Spilinek said, but he just doesn’t see Elba’s problem changing.

“It was easier to fix the money problem than it is to fix the student problem,” he said. “Because I can’t pull 15-year-olds out of a hat.”

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Elba has until the May 1 deadline to find students to option in from nearby districts. Others, Shalikow said, could be added until the fall enrollment count deadline in September.

But the board doesn’t want to wait that long to take action.

“You really get unified, or else you consolidate, or you let the state close you up,” Spilinek said. “And I don’t really see that as an option.”

Regardless, he said, Elba will be open next year, which would be the second low-enrollment year. If they cannot get the required number of students, he said, they would like to unify. That means they would share resources and a school board and operate as one district, but both schools would remain open. They sent letters to 28 similarly sized schools asking them to unify, he said, and they heard from only one - Lynch Public School.

Because that school is about 130 miles away, however, Shalikow said it just doesn’t seem like a viable option.

The other choice, then, would be consolidation.

With that plan, Shalikow said, they would be absorbed by another district and Elba would lose its school. While the building itself might become an attendance center for that other district, there would be no more Elba Public School.

The district, Shalikow said, is setting up talks with both the Centura and St. Paul districts about consolidation.

But what’s worse than losing the name, Shalikow said, is that Elba would lose all of what makes it special.

The FFA program there has almost 100 percent participation in grades nine through 12, he said, and they recently won the state competition in ag demonstration. The school was formerly rated as a low-achieving school, but this year, it dropped that negative distinction.

About 25 percent of the students are special education students, and Elba employs three special ed teachers and four aides. Small classes allow students to customize schedules and earn college credit, Shalikow said, and there aren’t fights or bullying. If there is a problem, he said, there are three EMTs on staff, and Shalikow himself is a member of the fire department.

“It’s sad that we’re doing all these things and we might not be allowed to continue,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for LB79-499, we wouldn’t be looking to do anything,” he said.

Many parents already option their children out of surrounding districts because of those programs, Shalikow said, and if they consolidate, there will be many fewer options for them.

That’s something John Dvoracek hates to consider.

He graduated from Elba in 1979. His daughter Michelle, currently a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, attended the school, and daughters Amanda and Kristine, a senior and eighth-grader, do now.

If Elba closes, he said, they would consider sending Kristine to another district, such as St. Paul, where she already plays sports, but they just want to find a school that fits her.

The small classes have done everything to give his naturally quiet daughters confidence, Dvoracek said, and the bond the teachers have with the students is amazing.

“They say to raise a kid it takes a village, and the Elba community does a good job of raising kids,” he said.

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That community could shoulder the brunt of the blow if the school were to close, Shalikow said.

With 22 employees, the school is by far the biggest employer in the town with little more than a bar, cafe and filling station.

With the threat of closing, Shalikow said, many are looking elsewhere. Shalikow himself has accepted another position with Newman Grove Public Schools.

“None of my staff want to leave, but I have a lot of young teachers who are looking beyond next year,” he said.

Without the school, the post office could follow, taking other businesses and residents with it, Spilinek said.

“I feel the school is the center of the community,” he said. “If you lose your school, you don’t have anything to entice someone to come and live there.

“It just seems like any town that’s lost a school, their whole town seems to dwindle.”

But for now, Spilinek said, they wait.

They are sending brochures to families in North Loup-Scotia, Dannebrog and St. Paul, Shalikow said, and they are still hoping to pull in the students they need.

Because there’s nothing wrong with the district, he said, they want to make sure they’ve done everything they can before deciding what will happen to the district, the students and Elba itself.

“It’s going to be sad to see what happens,” Shalikow said, “because there won’t be a lot of other options.”

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Information from: The Grand Island Independent, http://www.theindependent.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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