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Rural Districts Face Tougher Time Finding School Board Candidates

One rural Kansas district had only one name on the school board ballot last month, and no one filed for two other open seats.

The USD 247-Southeast School District in Cherokee, Kan., which serves students in two rural counties, has 694 students spread across 326 square miles of mostly farmland, according to a recent story in The Joplin Globe. The sole candidate on the ballot, Joe Ulery, said in the story that it's a difficult time to be a school board member in a rural area grappling with shrinking budgets and declining enrollments.

Many rural school districts across the country likely face similar challenges. A 2011 study from the National School Boards Association found that board members in large districts faced more competition in getting elected. Seventy-five percent of small district leaders characterized their most recent race as somewhat or very easy, while only 56.7 percent of large district leaders said the same. And, in small districts, less than 10 percent said it was difficult, compared to 31.4 percent in big districts.

The USD 247-Southeast School District superintendent, Glenn Fortmayer, echoed Ulery's concerns.

"Our board members don't like to see names," Fortmayer said in the story. "It could be a relative, could be a best friend next door, could be the person they eat dinner with on Saturday night, could have gone to school with them since kindergarten. These are close-knit communities in terms of the social connection. Sometimes their vote affects their own personal income; their own wife might be coming home with less."

ranks No. 16 in the country for its percentage of rural schools; 49.8 of its schools are rural. And the state has had anywhere from 50 to 70 vacant school board seats annually during each of the past 12 years, according to the story.

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