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Thursday, July 28, 2005 12:04 pm

Of Dragons and Indians

Officials with the Pawnee and Divernon school districts say that a soon-to-be-released study is expected to answer the question of whether the two rural districts should merge.

The idea of combining the two Sangamon County districts was broached last year by Divernon Schools Superintendent Mark Spaid. Informal talks between the two district boards led to a community meeting in October that drew more than 100 people.

“It was very cordial,” says Pawnee Superintendent Lonny B. Lemon. “People asked a lot of questions.”

Only six miles apart, the two rural districts are similar in makeup. They already share some sports programs, in fact, and many faculty members from the two districts know each other. Both districts have engaged in deficit spending in recent few years, and Divernon is on the state’s financial watch list. Both districts have cut programs but have well-maintained buildings.

And both districts boast 100 percent graduation rates.

“We have a good environment, great staff, and community support,” Spaid says. What Divernon does not have is much prospect of growth except through merger, he says. School enrollments there have slowly and steadily declined since he arrived 10 years ago.

If the $5,000 feasibility study, the cost of which is shared by the two districts, favors reorganization and if everything goes right, the earliest a referendum could be held is November 2006 and the earliest the newly merged district could begin operations is the 2007-08 school year. “A lot of things have to happen,” Spaid says, “and a lot of things can go wrong.”

The two boards will decide how many of the study’s recommendations to accept, then work out such details as administrators, buildings, and a new name for the fledgling district. Right now, there is a lot of speculation — and some concern.

 “I’ve lived here all my life, and they’ve talked about merger three times,” says Mark Bearden of Bearden’s Family Restaurant in Divernon. “People are worried about their real-estate values. If we don’t have a high school, people won’t want to come here.

“Divernon is worried about its identity,” he says. “We’re the Dragons. What are we going to be if Pawnee takes our high school? Alumni are worried. Divernon is a big sports town. That’s what they’re worried about.

“Academically, [reorganization] needs to happen. We can’t offer classes we need to offer,” Bearden says.

Spaid says that it’s difficult for a small high school to be financially efficient. He projects an enrollment of just 68 next year. Nonetheless, the district has won a Bright Star Award for its pupils’ test scores, and it offers six levels of math.

In Pawnee, Bill Bowsher, of Bowsher’s Furniture, says that he sees nothing wrong with a merger: “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Dolores Ford Mobley, president of the Divernon Parent-Teacher Organization, says that several people have told her that they have to “put the kids first, even though it’s hard to let go of hometown school traditions.”

She adds, “It’s easier for a larger high school to offer more of a curriculum.” But she sees advantages in small schools as well. The schools will still be relatively small.

“Wise people look at the schools when considering a town,” Lemon says. “The school district and education are a big factor. That’s something communities have to keep in mind if they want economic growth. Our board and staff are committed to providing the best education, to make this an attractive setting.

“Most communities fight like crazy to keep their schools,” he adds. “The toughest animal to kill is the school mascot.”

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