ARENA, Wis. — Ten-year-old Lola Roske grabbed her backpack and headed to elementary school for the last day of class, the final check on her to-do list before the unstructured bliss of summer.
At drop-off, her mother, Kellie Roske, was determined not to linger. All around her, parents were hugging their children. Teachers were brushing away tears.
“I surprisingly held it together,” said Ms. Roske, who for weeks had steeled herself for an “ugly-cry day.”
Lola was among the last students to attend Arena Community Elementary. After classes let out last Monday, the school was shuttered permanently by the River Valley School District, whose administrators say that unforgiving budgets, a dearth of students and an aging population have made it impossible to keep the school open. For the first time since the 1800s, the village of Arena has no school.
Arena Elementary is the second small rural elementary school in two years to close in the district, nearly 300 square miles of rolling pastures and dairy farms in southwestern Wisconsin. The one in the neighboring village of Lone Rock closed last spring. The district now has just one open public elementary school, in Spring Green, nine miles away.
The same scene is playing out across rural America. Officials in aging communities with stretched budgets are closing small schools and busing children to larger towns. People worry about losing not just their schools but their town’s future — that the closing will prompt the remaining residents and businesses to drift away and leave the place a ghost town.
Rural schools have been closing in waves for decades, but the debate has taken on sharp urgency this year, particularly in communities in the Midwest and New England that have grown smaller and older since the recession. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, who is under pressure as he campaigns for a third term, signed a bill in March increasing aid to nearly 150 sparsely populated school districts. A legislative committee in Madison, noting the major shifts in population from rural areas to cities and suburbs in the last decade, has convened public sessions across the state to search for solutions and hear from frustrated parents and administrators.
Arena’s last day capped a long, bitter and personal debate that has divided the rural community far more than any political debate or presidential election has.
Friendships soured. Co-workers took sides. Elected officials held long and emotional hearings. Residents voted on a referendum attempting to raise money and save the school. School board officials faced a recall election, and after the vote last year, one member was told by friends that it might be best if he didn’t show up at the Fourth of July celebration in Lone Rock. He stayed away.
Ms. Roske, a multitasking force of energy who runs both the school’s parent-teacher organization and a nearby horse farm, said she had fought the closure of the Arena school, where both of her daughters were educated.
Administrators say they hardly had any choice.
The numbers are there for anyone to see: The River Valley School District graduated 105 seniors this year, and expects only 66 kindergartners to start school in the fall.
But the fight over Arena Community Elementary is bigger than the school, a small building where moody sconces line the hallways, a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose landmark studio Taliesin is carved into a bluff a 10-minute drive down the road.
Residents worry about what will happen to Arena, population 834, without the school. There isn’t much else on this two-lane stretch of Highway 14: a gas station, a cheese outlet, a cafe called Grandma Mary’s, beloved for its Friday fish fry and beef stroganoff.
But the reality of rural life in the Midwest, school officials say, is that younger people are fleeing. They want Starbucks and Thai restaurants, plentiful jobs and high-speed internet, and when they start families, they want schools with amenities and big, thriving athletic programs.
“In any small community, anywhere in this country, our kids grow up and move away,” said Mark Strozinsky, a River Valley school board member. “They go to college and get a job, but it’s not here, because the opportunity is not here. So who’s left here? Grandma and Grandpa.”
Across rural Wisconsin, school administrators facing the same painful trend are having to choose which schools to shutter. Elementary schools in remote areas tend to be the most vulnerable, while those in slightly larger towns or villages survive longer, said Kim Kaukl, the executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, an advocacy group that represents 145 districts.
“At times it can pit the so-called country folks against the village or city folks,” Mr. Kaukl said. “Over the last 10 years, it’s unfortunately become a way of life.”
Two schools in the Portage school district in central Wisconsin closed several years ago after enrollment declined sharply, the district administrator, Charles Poches, said.
“You can’t have four teachers for 40 kids,” he said.
As the public face of the district, Mr. Poches said that he bore the brunt of residents’ fury at public hearings.
“It was hell,” he said. “We’d have 50 people, some who didn’t even have kids there but had gone to school there. They felt it was part of their community. It was very traumatic.”
Mr. Poches submitted his resignation and plans to depart this month after 11 years.
Over five school years, ending with the spring of 2016, 71 percent of rural districts in the state saw a drop in enrollment, said Sarah Kemp, a school demographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In Potosi, a town in western Wisconsin, Ronald S. Saari, the district administrator, said his district was down to 320 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, all housed in one building. Nothing is left to cut, he said.
“We’re an agricultural area,” Mr. Saari said. “At one point, they tell me, back in the ’80s there were 600-some kids in this district. But the smaller farms have consolidated into bigger company farms. Sometimes you sit back at the end of the day and reflect on how touch-and-go things are from year to year. When is that going to end?”
About 15 years ago, the graduating classes in the River Valley School District, then a relatively robust 160 students, began to shrink.
Administrators were faced with several choices, none appealing: Get more money from taxpayers through a referendum; reduce costs by closing elementary schools and eliminating staff positions; or cut more programs, like electives at the middle school and Advanced Placement classes in the high school.
The Arena school, which had 94 students in its final months, tried remaking itself into a public charter school with a STEM focus in 2014, receiving grants of more than $350,000 for new iPads and laptops, teacher training and consultants. But it was not nearly enough. Thomas R. Wermuth, the district administrator, studied enrollment projections and saw that the student shortage was not going to turn around. The state doles out aid partly based on head count; the new law to aid thinly populated districts wouldn’t help River Valley, which has too many students overall to qualify.
“For us, it was a no-win situation,” Mr. Wermuth said. “We didn’t want to start eliminating or reducing the music experiences that our children receive, our art experiences. We’re a pretty bare-bones operation already.”
In November 2016, the district asked residents to vote for an additional $9.3 million in taxes to keep the schools open, at least for several more years.
“We all knew it was going to be close,” said Lisa Kjos, an Arena resident who works for the school district. “For the parents in the village, their school was their life. The elementary school was what kept them going.”
The ballot measure failed by 207 votes.
The referendum opened wounds throughout River Valley, pitting the district’s four villages — Arena, Lone Rock, Plain and Spring Green — against one another. Spring Green, with its largest population and the most central location, stood to gain the most, while Lone Rock and Arena appeared most at risk.
“There were friendships that were split over one opinion or the other,” said Karen Wilkinson, a longtime substitute teacher at Arena. “Some of those have healed. But for some people, I don’t think there’s any going back.”
Jean Alt, a resident of Spring Green for more than 40 years, said her neighbors seemed unmoved by the possibility that a smaller village would lose its school. “They’re of the opinion: ‘If it’s going to save us money, great,’” said Ms. Alt, who taught at the Arena school. “But they’re not seeing the big picture of what’s happening in the other three towns. I got to the point where I didn’t even talk about it with other people. It just wasn’t worth the argument.”
In December 2016, the school board voted to close the elementary schools in Arena and Lone Rock. The village of Plain would keep a school serving preschool and kindergarten.
“I remember thinking, I will pay for this vote,” a board member, Frederic Iausly, said.
“A lot of this was based on feelings that we were picking on one community over another,” Mr. Iausly said. “That had nothing to do with it. It was based on numbers. How do we provide the highest possible education for our kids?”
At Arena Community Elementary School, teachers were determined to put on a brave face in the final weeks.
Students were cheered by a roller skating party, a field trip to the Wisconsin Dells, and on the last day, an end-of-the-year celebration and potluck.
Melissa Schmid, whose 10-year-old stepson, Evan, completed fourth grade this year, said she wished she had fought harder to keep the Arena school open. When the time comes for her 1-year-old daughter, she and her husband have decided to send her to school in a different district to spare her a long bus ride.
She worries about the value of their house. New people aren’t moving to Arena much anyway. But they definitely won’t now.
“We basically have a bank and a cheese factory,” Ms. Schmid said. “It’s not going to be a growing community.”
Mr. Wermuth, the district administrator, walked through the halls of the Arena school on a recent morning, pointing out the library, the gym, the classrooms where children in Packers sweatshirts huddled over books and puzzles. He is unsure what will become of the building.
There has been talk of turning it into a day care, a food pantry, maybe some sort of town hall. In the meantime, Mr. Wermuth is hopeful it will be used for basketball games and other community activities, just so it won’t be left to stand empty.
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