CERESCO — For decades, children growing up in Ceresco and Valparaiso have readied themselves in the morning, grabbed their backpacks and walked to school with a level of comfort that tends to exist only in small towns.
That was Hailey Drahota’s experience as an elementary school student in Ceresco, where she and her husband were born and raised. She hopes when her two children start school, that they’ll have the choice to walk there, too.
“It’s just what I grew up doing and my husband grew up doing,” Drahota said in an April interview. “This is why we’re still here, for our family, for our kids.”
To many who oppose Raymond Central’s proposed bond issue, seeing kids walking to school in the morning and hearing laughter during recess periods is part of everyday life and their towns’ sense of community.
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The thought of losing the elementary schools in Ceresco and Valparaiso has led to a passionate “Save Our Schools” campaign, with that slogan posted along highways and peppering front lawns throughout the district.
“I want to keep our community schools. It’s the blood and heart of the town,” said “Save Our Schools” campaign organizer Tammy Sharping in April.
Without the schools, they fear that Ceresco and Valparaiso will have diminished identities, and that the towns will struggle to prosper in the future.
If the bond passes next week, it would pay for a new elementary school building to rise at the district’s central site campus, which would mean the closing of the Valparaiso and Ceresco schools. The school board has said the change would ease facility maintenance costs at the existing schools and would help the district realize educational efficiencies from having all elementary staff and students under one roof.
In the past month, Raymond Central administrators have repeatedly held that the futures of Valparaiso and Ceresco are bright, with or without the elementary schools. At a series of public meetings in mid-April, School Board President Brad Breitkreutz pointed to the Norris School District as an example of communities that have survived — and in some cases, thrived — despite school consolidation.
Norris’s largest city, Hickman — 10 minutes from Lincoln’s southern outskirts — has grown exponentially in recent decades, adding more than 1,500 residents since 2000, according to U.S. Census data. The district’s campus lies between Hickman and its second-largest community, Firth, whose population is 649 and has doubled since 1970. Other Norris-area villages like Roca, Cortland and Panama have seen steady population growth since the district formed in the 1960s.
Dr. Craig Pease, a retired education professor at Wayne State College and former Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools superintendent, said the comparison to Norris is a sound one.
“One’s on the north side of Lincoln, and one’s on the south side of Lincoln,” Pease said in a phone call last week.
In the years before his recent retirement, Pease studied public school consolidations. He provided districts with reports detailing the financial impact they could see if they chose to consolidate. The results in his reports often suggested that school districts could stand to save money operationally over time through consolidation.
“In the studies that I’ve done, it’s not very efficient to run two small elementary schools,” Pease said. “It’s going to cost you more money to operate them in the long run.
He referenced a 2018 study he did for the former Clearwater, Ewing and Orchard public school districts in northeast Nebraska. Those districts consolidated as Summerland Public Schools in 2020.
“They asked the same kinds of questions, ‘Will it kill our communities?’” Pease said. “And I said, I can’t tell you that. But in some ways, if you build a new central school with a larger enrollment where you can do more things for kids, it actually might draw people back into your communities.”
Pease said Norris’s continued growth can be attributed in part to its centralized campus and its updated facilities — which he said prospective families often base their first impressions of a district upon.
One caveat to Raymond Central’s comparison to Norris, Pease said, is the Lincoln metropolitan area’s general growth patterns, which have traditionally skewed more to the south than north. Raymond Central administrators point to acreage growth near Raymond and Davey, as well as anticipated industrial growth on Lincoln’s northern edge, as reason to believe growth is coming its way.
Critics of the Raymond Central bond issue, like Sharping and Drahota, have agreed that Ceresco is poised to grow due to its location between Wahoo and Lincoln along U.S. Highway 77. Their concern is with Valparaiso, which is the farthest Raymond Central community from Lincoln. They think the extra distance from the capital city, combined with the loss of a local school would be enough for people to leave town.
Their hunch could be supported by Centennial Public Schools, a large consolidated district, just two districts to the west. Four of the district’s six communities — Beaver Crossing, Gresham, Cordova and Thayer — have experienced population decline since the 1980 census. The district formed in 1976 with Utica, Waco, Thayer and Beaver Crossing. Gresham and Cordova joined the system in the mid-1980s.
Meanwhile, Utica and Waco have grown, albeit marginally, since consolidation. The district’s K-12 school is in Utica, and Waco likely benefits from its location between Utica and York on U.S. Highway 34. Overall, the district’s population has grown by about 100 since the consolidation, Centennial Superintendent Seth Ford said.
“Anytime in rural Nebraska, if you're at least maintaining or even growing a little bit, that's a positive thing,” Ford said.
Despite population fluctuations, Ford said the towns have retained their identities. They still have summer celebrations and community pancake feeds. Some of the villages field their own Legion baseball teams.
Pease said a village’s prosperity or lack thereof should not depend on whether schools stay or go. There are other “drivers,” he said, that can contribute to a small community’s growth.
“What are you doing in terms of getting housing in your community? What do you have for daycare, before- and after-school care for young families? What’s the reasonableness of the drive to get to and from work?” Pease said. “Did Hickman die because the schools moved out of Hickman? I think Hickman is just as viable a community today as a Ceresco or a Valparaiso, and maybe moreso, because they’ve got, I think, an attractive school district.”
He gave the example of Greenwood, too, which lost its elementary school to consolidation with Ashland in 1985. The village’s population dipped slightly at the 1990 census, but has trended upward since then.
“That was the concern with Greenwood people, was that the community would just die when there was no school there,” Pease said. “In my mind, that hasn’t happened.”
Dan Ernst has 50 years of experience in Nebraska public education, as an administrator at Grand Island Northwest, Gibbon and Waverly and now as the associate executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. He said consolidation can have benefits on curriculum growth and staff effectiveness.
“But that doesn’t do anything to diminish the concerns of if a town loses its schools that they’re going to lose their communities, too,” Ernst said. “What I think I would say, watching this stuff for 50 years, is it’s not as bad as we think it’s going to be in most situations.”