Can a town survive losing their school? 

One of your fellow readers, Trace Frahm, has a serious question.

“Great articles and keep them coming! We are in a small town whose government school mob has decided we don’t meet their minimums and is leaving town in the summer of 2016. The prevailing premise is that once a small town loses its public school the town drys up. I don’t believe that at all and in fact our city council does not either. Do you have any podcasts or articles about rebuilding and reinvesting in small towns without a local school? It’s OK if you tell me that I am crazy but I believe we have a future, it’s just going to be different than the past. And seeds that our city council planted 2-3 years ago are starting to sprout but it took awhile to get going. Thanks!”

A town can survive anything. Towns have lost factories, mills, mines, businesses, schools, and grocery stores. Towns have been physically damaged by fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Towns have lost their location when dams changed the face of the land and when railroads or interstates changed the course of commerce. Towns have even lost their people. 

You name it, there is a town out there that has survived it. 

It won’t be easy. The people who lived through each crisis could tell you just how hard it was. It was probably harder than they ever expected. For every town that has survived, there are two that didn’t. 

What makes the difference of towns that survive and towns that struggle? You do. You shape the future of your town. 

Treat the loss of the school as past, even though it is coming up. It happened. OK. Now what can we build with what we have? 

You can’t ever go back, but you can start here, and shape the future town you want.

What specifically should you do to shape your town? Grow more businesses. 

  1. The best thing you can do for your town is start your own successful small business.
  2. The second best thing you can do is help someone else to start or expand their business.
  3. The third best thing you can do is help tear down the barriers to entry that keep more people from starting their own businesses in your town. 

If your town has lost a school, or you have a good story of a town that lost a school but survived, hit reply and tell me about it. 

Link of the Week
10 Ideas to make your Grand Opening more than just a sale. Of course you can use them for any special event, not just a grand opening.

Conversation of the Week
How do you get businesses to join the chamber of commerce or business association? 
One of your fellow readers serves on his local business association board. He asked for ways to get businesses to join. That kicked off a great conversation, and you can join in here

Keep making your town better,


  1. Al Jones sent me this info:

    "North Dakota State University's Extension Service did a study on school loss impacts many years ago for the Journal of Community Development, measuring both towns before and after they lost their high school or last school (elementary) and the towns down the road from them that got the influx of new students and teachers, both before and after.

    Impacts turned out to be wildly overblown, to a surprising extent. The new influx of students didn't increase local businesses much as their parents continued to shop where they had before and there was little in most of the towns to draw the students' own purchasing power (expect that would be especially minute with E-Commerce via smart phones, tablets, and home PC's with broadband from the rural co-op.) Make sense when you think about 20-50 kids' actual impact, 1 busload, and 2-3 teachers at most (generally there's plenty of classroom capacity.) Theoretically with a slightly larger pool of students to draw on, sports teams and extracurriculars may have enough to do noticeably more.

    The towns losing the schools had already gone past many other tipping points of key institutions/services they lacked the customer base or will to sustain and that turned out to matter more (grocery store, hardware store, car dealers, implement dealers, lumberyards, pharmacy, dentist, hair salon, clothing stores, discount stores, supper clubs, auto mechanics/tire shops, cafes, gas stations, post offices, fraternal lodges, etc.) so losing the school was a symptom rather than a cause of long-term decline.

    Converting old schools into business incubators, office space for local non-profits and arts organizations, manufacturing plants, office space for home-based businesses (far more of those than you'd think) are all viable and proven uses. Uses that don't generate adequate rents and are based on fantasies of "grants" addressing every problem are killers though. Donovan Rypkema's book, "The Economics of Historic Preservation" is exceptionally good, National Main Street Center's Bookstore. RUPRI's Craig Schroeder has lived this particular adventure in saving the abandoned school in his home town to put it back to use as a business incubator in rural Nebraska."

    Thanks, Al. That's all useful info.

  2. Elaina Turpin sent this personal experience from her town:

    "Becky- forgive me because this is really long.

    About three years ago our community lost a school. Attendance was down, timber dollars (a big source of income for a lot of rural NW communities) has really dropped and all the schools in the district needed some serious repair. I live in Mill City, which is the largest town in our school district at 1,500 people. The elementary school was located in Gates, a town of about 500, which is just a few miles east of Mill City. The school district covers about 40 mile stretch of Hwy. dotted with a lot of tiny communities. When the budget shortfall was made public the school board did something really great, they asked for public input. They held a series of town hall type meetings where they facilitated discussions on how the school district could make up the shortfall and how the community wanted the school to look and feel. This really opened a can of worms that led to the superintendent being charged with sexual harassment and a complete turnover of the school board. We ended up closing the historic elementary school in Gates and the district now has two schools, K-6, 7-12 grades. So not only did our community lose a historic mainstay, have to completely restructure it’s school system but we ended up being all over the news for our school superintendent being charged with sexual harassment. It was a big fat mess.

    Several very positive things happened as a result.

    * Community involvement- People from all walks of life came together for our children and the future of the community. There was not a single seat on the school board that did not have at least two people running for it. We had no money in the budget to move the school and the playground equipment. The elementary moved into the former middle school building so it didn’t have a playground. But people brought their trucks and trailers and loaded up the school and moved it. We started a PTO which raised about $20,000 that year in order to move the playground equipment. The PTO also did a series of mural projects to encourage pride in the new school and get the students involved. There were 5 murals overall and every student that submitted a design for the murals got their work in it. You can see pics on their facebook page.

    * Leadership- besides the changeover with the school board, we had to hire a new superintendent. We went through an interim that didn’t work out and in the end a former graduate from the school district came back and stepped up. Todd Miller has been fantastic. The school resolved it’s budget shortfall in a couple years with the new leadership. We were able to hire new teachers. He’s actively working on making the school a part of the community again. He’s also forged a partnership with the largest online school in the state. They entered a contract with the district and will be moving their headquarters to the community soon. This brings new jobs and more money into the district coffers. Attendance is up, it’s up so much that we will have to purchase modular buildings to house the 6th grade next year.

    * Old School/New Camp- the old elementary school was sold to a camp that provides services to disabled. This brings new blood and people into the community and allows the building to still be used to educate people. It’s a fantastic partnership.

    Closing the school was really depressing at the time, but it brought to light a lot of issues that we needed to address and the community rose up to address them right away. I think in the long run, it ended up being a really great thing. "

    Thank you, Elaina. I'm sure Trace will especially be glad to hear from a town that lost a school but gained more in the long run.

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