RIDGWAY – Some observers had predicted fireworks at a meeting to discuss consolidation of the Ridgway and Ouray school districts Monday night at the Ridgway Secondary School music room. It’s a subject with a long, contentious history, and much community strong feeling. But this most recent attempt to broach the topic, by a self-styled “Consolidation Research Group,” remained civil and true to the instigators’ promise that, “None of us has an agenda. We don’t know if consolidation is a good idea or a bad idea. We just want to find out if some form of consolidation would be in the best interests of our students.”
That was Ridgway school board member Kara Mueller, who opened the meeting and co-hosted with fellow board member Bart Skalla. The research group also includes Ouray school board members Jim Link and Christine Hinkson, along with long-time educator Ginny Ficco, who has been a teacher, principal, superintendent and school board member at various times in both districts.
Despite the volatile topic, turnout was scanty. In addition to the research group, only about a dozen citizens showed up, most of them teachers from the two school districts.
Arguments for consolidation always include potential cost savings, Mueller said: in administration, in staff, and possibly infrastructure costs, if one of the three buildings (Ouray School, Ridgway Elementary, or Ridgway Secondary) were to be closed. But these potential economies of scale might be offset, she said, by increased transportation (bussing) costs, for example, and by reductions in per pupil funding from the state. The bigger the school population, the less the state contributes per student. How would the numbers work out? We can’t know, Mueller said, until we research all the possible consolidation configurations.
Some of the configurations thrown up on the music room white boards involved closing, or shrinking the school in Ouray, while combining high schools, or high schools and middle schools at the Ridgway facility, presumably because it is newer and has more room to expand.
A plaintive question from the audience asked, “How would Ouray survive [without its school]? You’d lose the reason for families to move there. You’d lose your community identity. Ouray could be Silverton in 20 years.”
“I’d be very concerned that we would close any of the buildings,” Ficco interjected. “The taxpayers in both districts have a lot invested in those buildings. And Ridgway is still paying off this one.”
Ficco threw out one possible configuration: combine the middle schools in Ouray. Keep the elementary schools where they are. And combine the high schools in Ridgway. Mueller wrote out that configuration, among many other permutations.
“But then I have serious transportation concerns,” Ficco continued. “You could have middle school kids riding a bus 45-50 minutes each way from County Road 1 to Ouray. This will require a lot of research” to understand the pros and cons of any proposed changes.
Why are we considering a change now?, someone asked.
Bart Skalla mentioned that Governor Hickenlooper had recently stated his preference to reduce the number of school districts in the state from the current 178 to somewhere around 100. “He has since backed off that statement somewhat,” Skalla said. “It has to be local choice; consolidation can’t be dictated by the state. The CDE (Colorado Department of Education) has decided to offer more carrots now, and backed off the sticks.”
Besides, Hinkson said, the state’s goals barely apply here. Neither county school is failing. Though it is small, “Ouray is not a failing school!” she said.
“Both Ouray and Ridgway have earned Accreditation with Distinction,” Skalla concurred. “Why fix what isn’t broken?”
One unequivocal benefit to consolidation, said Ridgway music teacher Kathryn Kubinyi, would be a combined choir and a combined band. “Your program blossoms,” she said, with more kids.
Yes, but what would that mean for the current music teachers?, an audience member asked. A consolidated district couldn’t afford to keep both music teachers, so one would have to go.
“The heartbreak of letting faculty members go” is what concerned Ridgway mom Kimah McCarty. “Look at the cuts we’ve already had to make,” she said. “With more staffing cuts [under consolidation] and more part-time teachers, ambitious young teachers would not be interested in coming here.”
Athletics posed another conundrum. Combining teams might mean more sports and more competitive squads; the soccer and cross-country/track teams are combined now. Yes, but would we miss the community-defining rivalries, in basketball and volleyball for example?, asked Shannon (Schlosser) Robinson, who grew up in Ouray and attended both school systems.
Combining high schools would definitely kick the new teams up a bracket, commented long-time Ridgway coach Steve Hill. (Ouray currently has a high school population of 59; it is in the smallest bracket, 1A. Ridgway has approximately double that number in high school, making it a 2A school.)
Hill, who coached three 1A basketball state champions at Ridgway, raised a consolidation outcome that would present a personal challenge: “I’ve never in my life had to cut a kid. You combine ‘em, and some of these kids are going to get cut.”
“Welcome to the real world,” said Skalla. “Competition can be a good thing.
Yes, said Hill, “but I carried a lot of kids, kids who stayed in school because of basketball.”
“So, is there a compelling reason to do it [consolidate]?,”asked McCarty.
“We don’t know,” Mueller replied. “That’s what we want to find out. We know that people in both communities feel strongly about it. In the past, they’ve said, ‘Hell, No.’ But folks don’t really know what they’re saying Hell, No to.”
Shannon Robinson asked what the timeline might be for moving ahead with consolidation.
“We hope that at the end of the school year, we have something to bring to our boards,” said Skalla. “Our end goal is to intelligently diagram the possible configurations. It’s not even to provide a recommendation.”
And after that?, asked Robinson.
“By statute, it would have to go to a vote,” Mueller said. “As it stands now, each community votes separately, and if either one says no, it’s no. But I have heard – where did we hear this, Bart? – of the potential for a vote by the entire ‘new district.’”
That second scenario could certainly affect the outcome. Coach Hill remembered the last time there was an actual vote on consolidation. It was in the 1970s, and the question lost by five votes. “Ridgway was dead set against it then,” he said.