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The Ingersoll School, between Turtle Lake and Washburn, N.D., now sits empty. The school was built in 1885, four years before North Dakota became a state. (Annette Tait/Special to Agweek)

A school by any other name

Schools are the hearts and souls of rural communities. We gather 'round for sports, choir and band concerts, preschool programs, Christmas pageants and everything else our kids are involved in.

It's hard when small town and rural schools close or consolidate. What's best for students in the long run means tough choices for administrators and school boards and changes in mindset for communities. Turning what used to be rival teams into a single cohesive student — and community — body doesn't happen overnight.

The most important factor is our students, and their educations — something that's not limited to reading, writing and 'rithmetic. Small town schools are about community and involvement. They are about small student-teacher ratios and about inclusion. About being involved and participating.

Two school districts in our area survived this process about 10 years ago, going from two entities struggling to make ends meet to a single district that excels in many ways. It wasn't easy. And there are still issues that arise from time to time, about things like old signage and extracurricular club charters that haven't been updated.

But there are also many benefits students most likely wouldn't have if each district were still struggling on its own. The consolidated district has enough students to field academic and athletic teams and to be competitive in extracurricular activities. The district is able to purchase new technology so students have access to the same level of resources as those in Class A schools — large districts in major cities.

And, equally important, the consolidated district has the funding to make much-needed upgrades and renovations. Energy efficient upgrades save the district money on utility bills, and work on the boiler system ensures that students have warm classrooms during sub-zero winter temperatures.

Occasionally, a district in a remote location garners the support needed to replace buildings that can no longer be updated. But those are few and far between, most often occurring in areas where distance makes further consolidation impractical.

That choice is hard, too. New buildings aren't cheap. How do we build a school that serves all our needs and doesn't bankrupt the community? How can cost-effective be made attractive?

Where there's a will, there's a way. And small towns need to have the will now more than ever. We need to do more than just hold our own. We need keep the people we have and attract new families.

Our schools are part of how we do that. Parents of young families — and couples who plan to start a family — look for solid school systems. It's part of the equation, right up there with jobs and affordable housing.

Worst case scenario — your school is the one that closes. What can be done with an empty school building?

Plenty! We live near a few that have successfully been repurposed, two as hotels and a third as an event venue — the "best kept secret" around. Wonderfully maintained, it's available for dinners, reunions, dances, and more. Too bad only the local community knows about it — what a great opportunity to bring in revenue from out of the area!

What local gems are your "hidden treasures"? Get the word out, and put them to work bringing outside dollars into the local economy.