Russell School

RUSSELL — “We told them, ‘You can’t feel bad about this — you didn’t [cause] this.’”

That was part of the message from Russell Elementary School Principal Dan Dow to students Wednesday after the State Board of Education this week voted unanimously to force the district to close.

“We had a general assembly this morning, K-1,2 which is 130 students,” Dow told the Courier.

What did cause the closure, Dow believes, are the economics of trying to keep a small-town school system running.

“That’s what drives our world: the economy,” he said.

The state says they discovered Russell, which has had a shrinking enrollment over the past 20 years, was $300,000 in debt and not in compliance with certain administrative regulations.

“They talked about it closing even when I was in school,” said Felicia Beaty, who graduated from Russell High School in 1998. “They’d say, ‘Next year will be the last year.’ Then, the following year, they’d say, ‘Next year will be the last year.’”

A familiar story even earlier than that, said Toni Reynolds, a Russell resident who was in the class of ’82.

“They said ‘You’ll never graduate from here!’” she recalled.

She did, and after heading off to college, she moved back to Russell — to become a teacher.

But next year, except for the 12 members of the senior class, all students will be sent to neighboring districts — where, due to the solid education they have received thus far, they will do OK, Dow said.

Some could go to Albia or Wayne County schools, though most will probably go to Chariton, where Dow knows the staff. He told students it is a a “quality... caring” school district.

“I tell them, ‘This is life.' But it’s been kind of tough on the kids to concentrate; it’s been a tough year,” he said.

And talk about timing. This week, he said, just happens to be Russell students’ annual Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

“But we’re still pushing for a good effort,” said Dow.

Next year may not be easy at first, either.

“As a teacher, you worry about some students,” said Toni Reynolds, “who aren’t as confident and outgoing. This is a tight-knit school. It’s comforting for them to be in a small school where they can get some one-on-one help, or, if they have a problem, know who they can go to. Right now, they’re very unsure who is going to fill that role.”

Dow agreed, adding, “for other students, it’s no big deal; they’re outgoing and will make new friends easily.”

But there will be other differences, too, like having different grades in different buildings.

“It’s just going to be big change for the kids,” said Beaty. “Breaking up all the age groups is going to be harder for them. [In Russell], from preschool to 12th [grade] is in the same building.”

Even transportation issues will change how the students go about their day.

Next year, Dow said, “a kid that used to walk across the street now has a 15-mile trip to the nearest school.”

The last involuntary closure of a school district in Iowa took place in Hedrick — also a small district —17 years ago.

Economically, a big district may be easier to maintain than a small district, Dow said, but there can be something missing in a district with thousands of students.

“I think there’s also a point where we get too big. It’s like the doctor, who used to be across the street, and really knows you. Now, you go to the [medical organization] and they only know your name because it’s on the card,” Dow said.

Principals in Russell know every student.

“But there’s a cost to being more personal. It’s not that they’re not caring [in large districts], they just have too many students. They cannot afford to be as personal as they like to be,” Dow said.

The closing, which is effective in June, will also affect staff and community. Russell schools, Dow said, is an organization that “feels like home to most people.”

He said the district now has 20 teachers and support employees who “are thinking they’re unemployed.”

It’s not unusual for the state or relief organizations to step in and help when a larger corporation closes down, he said, and though this may not be big news, caring people should pay attention, because Russell, population 559, will feel a large impact.

Reynolds, a Russell High School graduate, has taught in the district for 20 years. She’ll apply to other districts, but won’t leave Russell.

“I’m tied to the community; we work a family farm that’s been in the family for years.”

Whether help through the state or other agencies will be offered to the employees in Russell is still an unknown, but Dow said they are deserving.

“We have good quality teachers here,” he said.

He hopes other Iowa administrators keep that in mind when reviewing resumes, rather than associating the Russell district’s closing as a slight against the teachers who work there.

“I don’t think you have to go very far to see the impact on a community, whether it’s consolidation, or forced closure or the closing of the post office,” said Dow. “You can see the effects.”

Beaty is the contact person for the 14 members of her graduating class, who will hold their 10-year high school reunion in May. It’s the same day as a tradition she worries about the future of: the whole-school banquet Russell also holds every five years, since “everybody knows everybody.”

She said the closing is sure to be a huge subject of conversation there.

“It’ll make a lot of them sad. You just knew it was coming. Each year, it got a little smaller,” she said..

This has been big news in Russell. And though Beaty believes most people care about the school, some weren’t concerned about the end of the district. Either way, closure has been a big topic in the community.

“You have your people who are for closing it, and others who fought it till the very end,” she said.

Dow has mostly encountered residents who fall into the latter category.

“This issue of closing has been here for a long time; some [residents] have heard it for 30 years or more,” he said. “There’s obviously some resentment, a range of emotions from anger to the overriding emotion, which is disappointment.”

Mark Newman can be reached at 683-5358 or by e-mail at mgnewman@mchsi.com.

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