LAKE BENTON (AP) -- Six tiny southwestern Minnesota school districts -- fierce rivals at times -- have been wrestling for nine months about how to form a single system to cut costs.
Three dozen board members have been trying to answer questions of dwindling enrollments, rising expenses and aging school buildings. A seventh district, Balaton, dropped out of the talks last month.
It's a similar dilemma that many rural districts now face. But in this area of the state, a committee of board members took steps recently toward combining the districts of Russell, Tyler, Ruthton, Hendricks, Ivanhoe and Lake Benton -- without deciding any building closures.
"Everybody's trying to protect their own turf," said board member Lisa Sixta. "It's hard to let go."
If individual boards agree, a single superintendent and business office could be in place by the 2003-04 school year, to be followed by integrated curricula, teacher contracts and sports teams.
It is believed the combination would be the largest of school districts in state history.
The objective, as Lake Benton board member Randy Lopau put it earlier: "Whatever it takes to give our children the best possible education at the lowest cost."
Since 1989, 170 Minnesota school districts have consolidated or combined some facilities or programs. "In most cases, they were overwhelmingly persuaded by studies that were done showing that kids would get a lot more courses," said Bob Buresh, school facilities specialist at the state Department of Children, Families and Learning.
The trend is expected to continue, but with a difference.
Six of every seven Minnesota school districts are seeing declining enrollments, the Minnesota Planning agency reported last year.
The easier mergers took place in the 1980s and '90s when the state offered more incentives to consolidate, Buresh said.
But fierce rivalries persist among the schools. "One thing I'm hearing from a lot from people in Ivanhoe, not so much from the kids" is a preference to send children to Minneota, Canby or Marshall rather than Tyler, said Lincoln HI Superintendent Ted Suss.
Despite rivalries, there's widespread agreement that something has to be done.
With a $100,000 state grant, the seven districts, including Balaton, sent two school board members each last year to form a Buffalo Ridge Joint Powers Board to study the future.
The future didn't look good. The schools had almost three times the square footage they would need if laid out efficiently. A 2000 survey showed the schools needed $7 million worth of work, but "nobody seems to be very comfortable with those figures" as high enough, said Paul Ferhman, chairman of the Buffalo Ridge board and a board member in Lake Benton, where the swimming pool has been closed because of structural problems.
Most of the districts are located in Lincoln County, where the population has dropped by 22 percent since 1980 to about 6,400.
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