By Amy Bickel Kansas Agland

MARQUETTE - When it comes to small Kansas towns and schools, it gets personal.

Marquette is one of them, a town where many of the 600-plus residents can trace their lineage to Swedish immigrants who settled here in the 1870s. Heritage here is visibly evident - from the grocery store that still sells Swedish cuisine like potato sausage - the Lutheran Church with its Swedish suppers - to the children who flock to a downtown building for clogging lessons on a Wednesday evening.

Ten miles away, along the same Smoky Hill River as Marquette, is the larger town of Lindsborg, which has similar history and ancestry. About 100 Swedish pioneers settled there in 1869.

So, it must have made sense in the 1960s, amid Kansas lawmakers' push for rural consolidation and despite the heartaches, that the two towns' schools should unify.

Fifty years later, however, the Smoky Valley, it seems, is divided. Wounds of the past - Marquette High School's closure in the mid-1980s, along with the junior high just three years ago - have reopened.

A small town's greatest fear is losing its school. For many rural towns, survival depends on whether they can keep the school doors open. Now, after nearly 140 years of educating its children, Marquette residents will watch the elementary students pour out the doors for the last time in May.

A reeling district

Emotions already were high as a large group of Marquette residents ventured into the school board meeting on Monday.

On the eve after the town's 140th birthday, they were making a last-ditch effort to save what remained of their school.

Piece by piece, the school has faded over the years. The high school closed in the mid-1980s after the state condemned the building and a bond issue to build a new one failed, said local farmer Ron Larson. High school students were bused to Lindsborg, although a few residents, angry with Lindsborg, began sending children to Little River.

Putting hard feelings aside, the Marquette residents have been trying to stave closure since that time. Talk of losing the school a decade ago led a group of community leaders to start a nonprofit offering free land to those who would build a house. It gave the school a boost for several years, but those children have grown up, said Marquette Principal Darryl Talbott.

Three years ago, the junior high basketball team played its final game before the seventh and eighth grades were moved to Lindsborg's middle school complex - despite the town's efforts that raised more than $115,000 to keep the junior high open, Talbott said.

Last year, with only a handful of students in the fourth-grade class, district officials began busing those kids to Lindsborg as well.

"It's come up quite often over the past few years," said Smoky Valley Superintendent Glen Suppes of closing the Marquette grade school, adding that, "This discussion didn't just happen overnight."

Tough decision

Kansas school districts, especially rural ones, are grappling with the loss of state funding. The state's current base aid is $3,838 per pupil - about $1,000 short of what state statute requires. Many schools have been digging into their contingency funds. The Smoky Valley district is no different.

It has lost 100 students in recent years and has trimmed the budget by more than $1 million. Adding to costs is the loss of enrollment dollars, as well as declining state revenue, Smoky Valley Superintendent Glen Suppes said.

Such decisions don't come easily, Suppes said, but with a drought of children in the Marquette school, the school was targeted for closure. The district could save more than $434,000 a year by moving Marquette's 68 students in kindergarten through third grade and fifth and six grades to Lindsborg. The move eliminates 12 jobs, many of them part time.

Suppes said without closing Marquette, cuts would have to be realized throughout an already tightly budgeted district.

The 200 Marquette supporters in attendance, however, saw closure as a potential death knell. Patrick Hoffman, an Ellsworth attorney hired by Marquette farmer Larson a few years ago to study ways to save the school, talked about the economic impact and the potential increased loss of base state aid per pupil if Marquette parents decide to send their children to nearby Little River.

Another issue, Hoffman said, was that if a majority of Marquette students were attending another district, that district could, potentially, petition the state to redraw the district boundaries, thus getting Marquette's portion of Smoky Valley's local option budget. Hoffman said property values generated from Marquette's land area is roughly $650,000 - or 20 percent of the district's annual budget. He also presented another option, which would have turned the school in to a fifth- and sixth-grade complex.

Despite the information, the board voted 6-1 to close the school in May.

"It was a sad evening - and it further drew the line in the sand," Suppes said. "All the people (on the board) are good people. They looked at the numbers. There is nothing more we could do."

The decision still eats at three-year board member Karla Pihl. "I know there are kids hurt, parents and townspeople hurt," she said.

Her focus, she said, has to be all the children in the district.

"Since I have been on the board, we have faced so many cuts and so many budget issues," she said. "The reason I voted the way I did is I felt it was the one cut that we could make that impacted the fewest number of kids in our district that led to a significant savings."

Past board members have made similar decisions, she noted. In the 1970s, the district closed schools at Falun and Roxbury. In the late 1980s, it closed the Smolan grade school - the building her husband attended during his primary years.

"Marquette, they are an amazing community," she said. "They keep saying it will be the end of their community, but I don't believe that. Marquette has vibrant people and a lot of things going for it. It has a swimming pool, people come to the motorcycle museum. There is a park, a nursing home.

"But it is unfortunate."

Looking for solutions

It's 3:30 p.m. and school is out. Children begin filling the two buses parked behind the building. Most of the others begin the walk home.

A woman who picked up her son slows her car to a halt, waving down a mother with her three children in tow. "I'm sorry I missed your call," the driver hollers out the window.

Kelly French waves back, telling her she just wondered if she had given any thought where she would send her son next school year.

French, with the help of other mothers, has called nearly every parent - taking count on where Marquette children will go next school year. About 30-some students already go to Little River. French's survey shows another 35 or so of Marquette school's current census could be at Little River next school year. In fact, Marquette's LED sign says as much - welcoming students to Redskin country.

If those numbers are realized, Smoky Valley would see a drop of roughly $250,000 in base state aid that would be added to Little River's rolls.

Little River Interim Superintendent Mary Treaster said her board had a contingency plan if they would see an influx of Marquette students next school year. Meanwhile, according to the November Little River district minutes, board members at that time decided they didn't have an interest in pursuing any land transfer of the Smoky Valley district to the Little River District. Land transfers are complicated.

"We're not blind to that fact," Suppes said of students filtering toward Little River. "Parents have to decide what is best for their child - if it's going over the highway 23 miles to Little River."

He said that of the 100 students lost in the past three or four years, about 60 came last year. Of that, 30 percent is Marquette students who chose Little River rather than Lindsborg. "If all those kids would have stayed, the cuts would not have been nearly as devastating," he said.

But would the school have stayed open another year or two? There would of been a "chance that we could have gone another year," he said.

'This is my home'

French graduated from Smoky Valley High School in 1999, where, she said, she had a great experience. But her roots run deep in Marquette. Her great-great grandfather Lindstedt, a Swedish immigrant, settled in the Marquette area in the late 1860s and farmed. French herself grew up near Marquette. She attended school in the town through eighth grade. She returned home after college to raise her family. Her daughter, Keira, is in second grade. Another daughter will begin kindergarten next school year. Her youngest is 3.

Keira is the fourth generation to attend school in Marquette. Her other children won't get the chance. She plans to enroll them in the Little River district next fall.

"This is my home," she said, later adding, "Generation after generation we came to the same place. I don't think people understand why this is a big deal to us."

She and another community member asked to meet with school board members last year, discussing several ways to save the school, including one that would make it a charter school, like the agriculture-themed school at Walton. Those ideas, she said, were shot down.

She said she understood that the way the school was currently operating probably wouldn't work in the future but doesn't feel like any other possibilities were explored - or explored as two communities working together.

"I understand there are several people who sit on that board and their job isn't easy," she said. "But if we can work together as two communities as one, we could get some solutions."

Town with a lot to offer

Standing in his Main Street grocery as customers purchased products during the noon hour, owner Steve Piper has faith in his town.

Just look down Main Street, he said. There is no sign of a dying town.

"There is not an empty building - two buildings are being remodeled for new businesses," he said. "There is almost a waiting list to get a building downtown."

The former mayor has worked to get the town that way. He was instrumental in the free land giveaway to help save the school, which brought families from both coasts to the Kansas town and garnished national media attention.

He does have worries about Main Street and about the town's population.

"People are going to have second thoughts moving here if they have little kids," he said. "They don't want them to have to ride a bus."

Then, he asked, "Why not come up with a plan that didn't harm any child?"

Down the street at the Rusty Tin, a trendy clothing and vintage furniture shop, store owner Becky Whitte said she thinks Marquette's future is bright.

While sending her children to Little River the past few years, she has worked to revitalize Marquette's downtown. As Marquette's chamber president, she is in the process of putting in a liquor store and said she's been having events every month that bring people to town. There already is a motorcycle rally in May and a rodeo in August, with several seasonal festivals in between those dates.

Marquette isn't just any old small town, she said. It is close-knit community.

"This town isn't built around a school," she said. "It's built around a community itself."