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Consolidation: To join or combine together into one thing; to make something, such as a position of power or control, stronger or more secure. –  Merriam Webster Dictionary

In 2014 and 2015, a rarity was noted among South Dakota schools: There were no consolidations.

Not since 1950, when the state began tracking school district activity, had two consecutive years passed without a reorganization, merger or closure.

It didn’t last, of course. Corsica and Stickney consolidated this year, and just recently, the Tripp-Delmont School District announced that it was considering further consolidation, an opt-out, or dissolving the district.

In the ever-changing field of K-12 education, the march toward hyphenated school districts has characterized the landscape for more than half a century.

School consolidation has slowed, but only because so many have taken place.

Children going back to school this month likely attended a district made up of two or three former districts.

When Frank and Deborah Popper wrote their controversial essay, “Buffalo Commons,” in 1987, South Dakota counted 193 school districts. Today, it is 150, and heading south.

The Poppers argued that a vast portion of the mid and upper United States, roughly equivalent to the Great Plains, should be used for buffalo grazing. Land use and geography experts, the Poppers claimed the region simply wouldn’t sustain ranching and farming to the degree necessary for long-term viability.

They were wrong, of course. Better farming practices, enlightened environmental policies, and technology advances have made, and kept, the region an essential part of the nation’s breadbasket.

However, this state in particular – or at least the central part of it – continues to face challenges as daunting as dry weather when it comes to maintaining and expanding the economy. First is the continued population decline. In our state, most of the growth is in Sioux Falls and the Black Hills. The midsection loses population every census, and that trend is reflected in shrinking small towns and the continued consolidation of school districts.

The much touted Interstate 90, which some communities coveted, has worked against small towns by providing quick and easy access to larger trade centers. Mechanized farming and larger and larger operations have reduced the number of persons needed for ag operations. Consolidation and centralization of services have reduced employment in many areas.

In most West River areas, school consolidation has limited out. The distances are too great. Kids can only ride a bus for so long.

Sometimes I wonder what the future holds for children still on the land with their families: Boarding schools, or expanded distance learning?

Sept. 7, 2018