Bucking a trend, an Oregon town defies the forces behind school

Sunday, June 8, 2003

IONE, Ore. -- There are just two landmarks on the skyline of this tiny town in the sprawling high desert hills of northeastern Oregon: a grain elevator and the school.

The grain elevator is long abandoned. But when talk surfaced about shutting down the high school and busing students out of town, the ranchers, wheat farmers and retirees of Ione, population 350, looked into the future and didn't like what they saw.

School consolidations have begun to seem like an inevitability in much of rural America, pushed by declining enrollment and states' need to save money. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has launched a crusade to sell resistant rural residents on consolidation, and legislators in Oklahoma and Michigan have offered payoffs to districts that agree to consolidate. Idaho has just 52 school districts left, down from a high of 1,110.

Oregon, too, is in the grip of a school funding crisis that has forced districts statewide to lay off teachers and shut down early.

After a spree of consolidations in the mid-1990s that reduced the number of school districts by half, new legislation is under consideration that would examine the benefits of even more mergers among the state's smaller school districts.

But the residents of Ione, fueled by grit and cash, persuaded the Legislature to allow them to secede from the Morrow County school district and form their own district.

If Gov. Ted Kulongoski signs the plan, only Ione will be able to say what happens to its school. There was no word Saturday if the bill had yet been presented to Kulongoski.

"If this community were to have lost the high school, you might as well take away the businesses, close the doors and call it good," said Joe McElligott, whose family has farmed in the area for generations.

Ione has a bank, two churches, a restaurant and not much else.

The town of Heppner, a town of about 1,400 people some 17 bumpy miles way, would be happy to absorb the Ione middle and high schoolers -- and their state funding.

Ione residents fear that if that happens they would be left with a town without a center, no place to go cheer for a Friday night football game or a school play, and their children would be swallowed by the larger community.

"Do you think a girl from Ione would ever be elected homecoming queen" in Heppner? asked Anne Morter, an Ione parent. "The kids who warm the bench here, they wouldn't even make the team there."

There is also a feeling that the school has a deeper meaning to Ione.

"In the end, it was about a sense that there would be no community" without a school, said farmer Jerry Reitmann. "Those of us with a history here wanted to make sure the town survived."

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