STURGIS | Fears of a potential closure of one of a handful of remaining rural Meade County schools led to a changing of the guard in the June 4 election for the Meade School District 46-1 Board of Education.
Rural candidates Lee Spring of Atall, John Nachtigall of Elm Springs and J.T. Vig of Opal ousted two incumbents, Curtis Johnson of Piedmont and Robert Burns of Black Hawk, and captured a third open seat created when Bryce Richter of Sturgis declined to seek re-election.
Results showed Spring (728 votes), Vig (623) and Nactigall (606) topping the six-candidate ballot, with Burns (418), Johnson (363), and another first-time candidate, Sturgis businessman R. J. Ludwick (223) trailing.
The Journal was unable to reach Spring for comment, but both Nachtigall and Vig said they decided to get into the race after an agenda item concerning declining enrollment at the Atall School was discussed at the November meeting of the board in Sturgis.
According to the minutes of the Nov. 12 meeting, district Superintendent Jeff Simmons “discussed the possibility of suspending operations (of the Atall School) because of expected low student enrollment and cost of operations for the 2019-20 school year.”
Spring, Nachtigall and Vig oppose suspending the school’s operations.
“Geographically, I don’t know how they can close down any more schools out here in the rural area of Meade 46-1 and still say they are providing a service for us,” Nachtigall said. “We’re just too spread out and road conditions, there’s a lot of times during the year it’s pretty tough to get a kid to school.”
Vig said the prospect, whether real or imagined, of closing a school was a small part of overall rural dissatisfaction with the school board.
“There’s been some discontent for a number of years, I’d say 40 years,” said Vig, “This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The school district operates six K-8 rural schools across the vast expanse of Meade County along with elementary schools in Whitewood, Piedmont, Sturgis, middle schools in Sturgis and Summerset and a high school in Sturgis.
Along with the Atall School, located about 50 miles southeast of Sturgis, other rural schools include Hereford, Elm Springs, Opal, Enning and Union Center.
A new school under construction in Union Center, slated to open for the 2019-20 school year, will combine students from the Enning School, which will close.
Simmons said the Nov. 12 agenda item was only to foster discussion of ebbing enrollment at the rural schools and its effect on the quality of education for those students.
“We don’t have any intention of closing rural schools,” Simmons said. “The conversation needs to be about providing the best educational experience for our students, and if there’s only two or three students in the rural school, is that the best experience for a child?”
Both Vig and Nachtigall said teaching positions have already been cut from rural schools.
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“I want to make education No. 1,” Nachtigall said. “We’ve got to have our core teachers to teach.”
Both said the board needs to search for inefficiencies in the budget to allow for more teachers across the district, not just in rural schools.
“Without teachers, we have no school,” Vig said.
Spring, Nachtigall and Vig will take their seats on the board in July, joining Dennis Chowen, Courtney Mack and Cody Weber, all of Sturgis, Charlie Wheeler of Piedmont, Tracy Konst of Whitewood and Joseph Urbaniak of Union Center.
A get-out-the-vote campaign in rural precincts helped turn the tide of the race.
Voter participation ranged in single-digit percentages in precincts in and around Sturgis and in Whitewood, Boulder Canyon, Tilford, Piedmont and Black Hawk.
In Sturgis just 6 percent, 250 of 4,162 registered voters, turned out to the polls.
Turnout topped 50 percent or more in three of four rural precincts, with 68 percent (69 of 102 registered voters) casting ballots in the Elm Springs precinct.
In two rural precincts, Nachtigall, Vig and Spring split all votes cast.
“That just shows the level of discontent in the rural areas, from even breathing the thought of closing another school,” Vig said.
Nachtigall and Vig say they are aware of the mandate the vote represents, but they also realize they represent the entire district.
“It’s everyone’s duty to chip in where they can. I‘m not a politician and I have no intentions of being one,” Vig said. “I do feel it’s a citizen’s duty to represent. That’s how this government’s designed.”
Simmons said he looks forward to working with the new members of the board and congratulated the rural districts for stepping up with candidates and ballot-box support.
“They absolutely did a fantastic job and good for them,” Simmons said. “That’s what the process is about. If you want your voice heard, you get out and vote.”