July 18, 2024

If we don't help, rural America will keep dying

Read Head

Two recent CNA stories have sparked attention — the May 24 story about “bus barn hill” being sold and this week’s story about the Orient-Macksburg School District’s dissolution.

Both of these things have been pillars of the community. The O-M school district was created in 1960 as the consolidation of schools in the two towns. The bus barn hill has been a winter sledding destination for years. In the next few years, neither will exist anymore.

The Princess Theater in Mount Ayr just announced they are having to consider closure after more than a century in business because they aren’t able to make enough money to pay the bills.

I’m not from Creston. I’ve never sledded on bus barn hill or even stepped foot in the O-M school building, but I am from the rural Midwest. I grew up in a no-stoplights county in southwest Wisconsin where our town of 2,400 people was the county seat. I graduated high school with 59 kids, ours one of the biggest schools in a 30-minute radius.

If we needed groceries other than what you could find at the Piggly Wiggly, you had to drive 30 minutes to the nearest Walmart and over an hour to the closest mall.

What I’m trying to say is I get it. I’m a small town girl, through and through. I came to Creston originally because of a promotion with UScellular. They needed someone to be the store manager for their Creston location, but no one wanted the job because of the town’s small size. I jumped at the opportunity as I never wanted to live in a major city.

To me, Creston is a good-sized city. I remember being so shocked to see there was not only a Walmart, but also a YMCA, a state park and a Pizza Ranch!

When I covered the Creston Community School District’s bid for a general obligation bond in 2022, I was immediately on board. Even if it had cost me a small additional amount in taxes (which it wouldn’t have), I felt it was worth it.

The Early Childhood Center would be able to leave its dying building, the arts students would get a new band and choir room and a new multi-purpose activity center would provide much-needed space.

But voters weren’t willing to pay. Voters either didn’t want to raise their taxes or they didn’t think the students needed these “extravagant” updates like functional buildings and enough space to breathe.

But these needs didn’t go away. The ECC building is not a viable option going forward, so the school had to move forward with the plans without the money the bond would have afforded them.

Last September, the school board approved up to $19 million to be used to remodel the elementary-middle school building to relocate the classes within the ECC.

Funds will have no impact on taxes, instead they will go against the district’s future school infrastructure sales, services and use tax revenue bonds. Essentially, the school is having to borrow against their future revenues.

In May, the school board approved the sale of a parcel of land adjacent to the ECC, the first of many proposed sales. This block of land happens to be the piece that holds bus barn hill. Keystone Equity Group is paying a total of $64,920 for the 5.41 square acres of land.

Now I’m not saying the school would have kept the land had the general obligation bond passed, but they would have been in a much better position to consider it. If we tell them we won’t give them money and they need to figure it out themselves, who are we to judge how they decide to do it?

When it comes to O-M, 87 students out of the district’s certified enrollment number of 164 have chosen to open enroll out of the district while 33 have open enrolled in.

Though open enrollment was certainly a factor in its dissolving, I’m a firm believer that students should have a choice in their education. Instead, I’d like to think of what we can do to keep families engaged in our small communities.

We need more quality housing and we need to put our best foot forward. This means following our city codes and cleaning up nuisance properties. Is it inconvenient and annoying to be told your property isn’t up to code? For sure! But we need to think about what will help keep rural America alive.

We’re already going to lose a lot of people because they want to live in a big city. Trust me, we ran into that a lot trying to hire for the newspaper. We need to look our best and support our community if we want to attract those willing to give up Olive Garden and Hobby Lobby for our little corner of Iowa.

That means paying a little more for a book at the store down the street rather than ordering from Amazon. It means paying a little more on your taxes so we have an attractive school district. It means going to see a movie at the local theater and opting for the extra large popcorn. It means saying yes when students come around for fundraisers. It means keeping our properties and parks clean.

The things it takes to keep rural America alive may be inconvenient, but they are vital if we want to preserve this way of life.

Cheyenne Roche

CHEYENNE ROCHE

Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.