Rural America Faces the Abyss
School consolidation and closures are emblematic of the larger difficulties facing rural communities.
Illustration by Chloe Cushman
By Brad Roth
On a summer drive through western Kansas, I pulled off the road into Arnold (population 55). The redbrick K-12 school had been abandoned and fenced off since the 1960s. Trees stretched up through the eaves of the decaying building and punched out its muntinned windows. As I waded through the tall grass, I startled a velvet-antlered whitetail buck. It bounded across the overgrown schoolyard, away from my clicking camera.
School consolidation and closures are emblematic of the larger difficulties facing rural communities and largely rural states. College and economic opportunities draw young people to the cities and suburbs—and often to the coasts and the Sun Belt. Plains states have struggled mightily to lure young professionals, including skilled teachers, to return or relocate. Iowa’s ad campaign under former Governor Tom Vilsack may be the best-known effort.1 But in our smallest communities, such statewide initiatives have yielded little fruit.
This has led to an abysmal sense that, at any given moment, the bottom could drop out of the community.
When the school goes, so too does the state funding that percolates into the district, as well as a whole class of professional jobs, from teachers to administrators.
It is not an irrational fear. In recent years, more people have moved out of Kansas than in, and the hollowing out of tiny communities across the Great Plains has been widely tracked and documented.2 The anxiety around this hollowing out usually centers around the school, and for good reason. Local schools are vital to a community’s self-understanding and morale, so boarding up the school can seem like boarding up the community. When the school goes, so too does the state funding that percolates into the district, as well as a whole class of professional jobs, from teachers to administrators. Not only that, but schools provide a common bond that ties rural communities together. We can all root for the home team.
In many places, that home team has disappeared. Criteria set by the Kansas state legislature in the 1960s required school districts to contain either 400 students or encompass 200 square miles.3 Those that couldn’t make the cut-off found themselves consolidating with other small schools, sometimes bringing an entire county—with all of the busing logistics that involves—under one district.
I live in Moundridge, a Kansas town 160 miles east of Arnold, and for the most part our area is thriving. Although the ubiquitous narrative following the 2016 presidential election depicted rural communities as withering on the vine, a lot of small towns along the Kansas I-135 corridor have more jobs than working adults. Still, despite low unemployment, proximity to Wichita—an international aeronautics hub—strong community spirit and buy-in, and a culture of education, my community voted down two school renovation bonds in April 2016 and April 2017.
Passions flared on both sides of the bond vote. Rancorous posts piled up in Facebook community chat rooms. Yard signs cropped up across town: Vote Yes for the Future. These were countered by a citizen-group-sponsored “Vote No” postcard campaign. A handwritten sign on crumpled notebook paper outside the post office expressed common anti-bond sentiment: Fact: If you don’t want everything in Moundridge to go up, vote No!
The defeated bonds were followed by a school board election that generated extraordinary interest, with six candidates vying for three open positions. The third-ranking candidate, a young mother, won her seat by exactly one vote.
Two competing visions of the future of the community were in play, with a higher-tax, all-in, ambitious future clashing with a lower-tax, more modest vision concerned with affordability.
As I set out to understand my rural community’s intense bond and school board votes, I compared our experience as a growing community in the orbit of Wichita to the experience of Arnold, a more isolated central Kansas town that has been on the decline for decades and lost its school to consolidation in the 1960s. It became my tale of two (tiny) cities.
Along the way, I discovered a subtext. My community was wrestling not just with tax rates and plans for gymnasium renovation but with something deeper: its reason for being. Does it matter that we exist? Though it wasn’t on the ballot, I became convinced that we were holding a referendum on the abyss faced by rural communities everywhere in the United States.
In Arnold, the bottom of the community didn’t really drop out so much as sag. Through the state-mandated school consolidation, the community had already reached a tipping point. There simply weren’t enough children to justify having their own school—or enough taxpayers to fund it.
Rod Giess lives just outside of Arnold. He was in the first class to attend all four years in the consolidated high school in nearby Ransom. Giess went from an eighth grade class of four in Arnold to entering as a freshman with a class of 27 in Ransom. It was a big step for him. He wondered, “How will I ever get to know these people?”4 Giess laughs about it now. As a child, he remembers hoping the referendum wouldn’t pass. But, as he settled in to life in a school seven times bigger than the one he had left, Giess came to appreciate the expanded academic, athletic, and extracurricular opportunities. After college, he went on to become a teacher in the same consolidated school district he had joined as a freshman.
While Giess came to experience the consolidation positively, the vote to consolidate was hotly contested. According to a history of the Arnold schools written by Dale Haug, the measure to consolidate was defeated 61 votes to 58. However, this vote did not settle the matter. Just two months after that initial defeat, a second referendum was held in which the community voted to consolidate by a margin of 24 percent.5 It’s unclear what—apart from the obvious challenges of running a small, rural school and continued pressure from the state legislature—caused the sharp pro-consolidation swing in public opinion, but even 55 years later, some in Arnold remain opposed to the move. Giess spoke to me of anti-consolidation sentiment that has been nurtured and passed down to what is now the third generation.
When I talked to Bonnie Linton-Hendrick, former pastor of the Arnold United Methodist Church, she described a similar story. While consolidation had long been a settled fact by the time of her tenure, Linton-Hendrick found herself working across lines of a community still divided. There was a sense of loss among some long-term residents of Arnold who remembered the way the energy and identity of the community had shifted east to nearby Ransom, tracking youth activities and tax dollars.6
In my own town, it seemed to me that just below the community debate lurked an inchoate fear that if the right moves weren’t made, things would fall apart, the gaps beneath our feet opening up like glacial crevasses to reveal just how deep they always ran.
Among pro-bond voters, the fear was especially pronounced. Without top-notch facilities and the teachers to staff them, the school would suffer brain drain—both of skilled teachers and students—to other, nearby districts. As the Moundridge school superintendent, George Leary, put it, no doubt capturing common pro-bond sentiment, “The only thing we lack in Moundridge to be an über-smart community is a great school facility.”7
In these voters’ understanding, failing to build that great school facility and Moundridge’s two interstate ramps would end up encouraging workers to live (and pay taxes) in neighboring towns and drive in to work—a problem our community already faces. Things would snowball from there as property values declined and the tax base diminished. Eventually, the district might be consolidated.
The process of consolidation has never really ended in Kansas. It can still provoke fear—including in Moundridge, where the school-age population hovers just under 400. As recently as 2016, the cash-strapped Kansas legislature debated mandating a round of school consolidations, much like what happened in the 1960s. The consolidation measure met stiff resistance from rural schools. Although it was ultimately dropped, and the state school budget was partially restored, the forces that drive school consolidation have continued unabated. Particularly in lightly populated western and north-central Kansas, schools are still closing, their buildings and buses left to decay after tax proceeds shift across the county.
In Moundridge, Leary assembled a fresh task force and led the community to a successful bond vote on February 22, 2019. To achieve this positive outcome, Leary worked intentionally to engage different factions in our community. Some of those who voted no in the previous two bond elections served on the new task force, which floated a more modest bond proposal of $14.59 million. The new bond was intended to be a break with the past. “This community cannot afford another failed bond election,” Leary said.8
This deeper responsiveness to the local culture was important. In surveys following the first two elections, the phasing out of a historic gymnasium rose to the top as a reason people voted against the bonds—that and the rumor that outside companies from Kansas City were designing the process to benefit their suppliers and contractors while cutting out local businesses. True or not, the perception ran against the grain of many people’s sense of community.
It’s this sense of community that people ostensibly sought to preserve, however they voted. Sociologists speak of “social capital” to characterize how the relationships that bind people together in community provide abiding and tangible benefits. Like hidden shale gas reserves, the economic value of social capital has only recently come to be appreciated—and to spark a rethink among policymakers and economists on how best to benefit rural places.9
But to focus on the economic value of social capital is to see it merely instrumentally and to miss what sociologists David Brown and Kai Schafft refer to as social capital’s “symbolic value.”10 As people are bonded to one another in community, they ascribe meaning to each other’s lives, and in this way social capital furnishes a powerful framework for identity and meaning making.
The school is a primary engine of social capital generation in rural communities.
The school is a primary engine of social capital generation in rural communities. In the school, we’re bound together across time by shared memory, by the common projects of our present (whether it’s our team sports or the taxes we pay), and by the obvious hope for the future that our children represent. We enact community identity through the school. It’s the main site where we are who we are, together. And so the question becomes: Without the school, would there be a community? Would there be an us?
We all face the abyss in deeply personal ways as we strive to give meaning to our daily lives. The abyss is the soul-deep, existential threat to meaning that always lingers at the edges. It’s the questions that nag at us: What matters? Will my work endure? Or simply: Why get up in the morning?
Most of us tend to answer these questions by seeking purpose in something larger—family, faith, or nation—or by throwing ourselves into a personal mission that matters to us. As long as we can eat, breathe, and sleep something, that something becomes our little candle against the darkness. It’s perhaps only the poets and mystics who allow themselves to get fully lost in the abyss, and we benefit from their attempts to understand and chart it.
But the abyss can also be faced by whole communities—by towns, cities, and nations. We sense that there must be some deeper reason for the body politic to exist, a meaning that rises above the shuffling polis. In her novella, The Man Who Bridged the Mist, Kansas fantasy writer Kij Johnson describes a nation separated by an unfathomable abyss shrouded in caustic mist. The abyss can be navigated by those who understand its tricksome currents, but at great risk, for gargantuan, alien fish haunt the depths, occasionally surfacing to gulp boats and travelers. The story’s protagonist is an architect sent to do what has hitherto been impossible: build a bridge that can span the abyss.11
Rural communities are thin places for the abyss. Many of the towns dotting the Great Plains were founded as water stops along the old train routes, at least according to legend. Now that the train’s just passing through, that old purpose has dried up. As a reporter from a big, midwestern city commented to me once, “There’s really no reason for a lot of these communities to exist.” Many people in the nation’s smallest communities have come to the same conclusion, voting with their feet in places like Jewell County, Kansas, which lost half of its population between 1970 and 2000.
For many rural communities in America, the question is not simply why they should exist, but whether they should exist.
Thus, for many rural communities in America, the question is not simply why they should exist, but whether they should exist. There’s a unique way in which rural communities have to defend and contend for their very existence. No one questions Washington, DC’s purpose. But Washington, Kansas? Where’s that, and why haven’t they all moved to Kansas City?
Perhaps Johnson’s story is a sort of parable. The abyss lies before us, the depths threatening to gulp us down. We all need to learn to navigate and span it. There’s no one way to do this. But in rural towns like mine, it’s a sense of community identity and togetherness—especially as it’s centered in the local school—that gives us the grit to survive, thrive, and build a bridge across the abyss.
This is why bond votes and school consolidation matter so much in rural communities. It’s not just about the final tax bill. There’s a deeper subtext: we’re casting a vote in favor of a coherent community identity and sense of togetherness. It’s a vote against despair and meaninglessness. It’s a vote against the abyss.
And it’s why people in even the tiniest, most far-flung communities continue to thumb their noses at the demographic odds, still longing and laboring and voting for the promise of a shared future.
- See Celia Llopis-Jepsen, “Remote Schools Struggle to Fill Positions,” The Topeka Capital-Journal, March 22, 2015; and Samuel Berbano, “Ads Hope to Get Young Families Moving to Iowa,” Iowa State Daily (Iowa State University, Ames), April 11, 2005.
- See Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain
- Drain and What It Means for America (Beacon Press, 2009).
- Celia Llopis-Jepsen, “Rural Majority: School Consolidation Complex, Controversial,” The Topeka Capital-Journal, March 23, 2015.
- Rod Giess, phone interview by author.
- Dale Haug. History of Arnold High School 1918–1960 (Arnold, KS, November 1988), 154–55.
- Bonnie Linton-Hendrick, phone interview by author.
- George Leary, interview by author, January 30, 2018.
- Leary also joked at the time, “My marriage can’t afford another failed bond election.”
- See Heather Long, “America’s Forgotten Towns: Can They Be Saved or Should People Just Leave?” The Washington Post, January 2, 2018.
- David Brown and Kai Schafft, Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century: Resilience and Change (Polity Press, 2011), 39.
- In Kij Johnson, At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories (Small Beer Press, 2012), 206–75.
Brad Roth (MTS 2001) is pastor of the West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kansas, and author of God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press). He blogs at DoxologyProject.com.