March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

Corn dust flurries through the quiet heart of McCool Junction, Neb., a prairie town (pop. 372) boasting two grain elevators, a gas station, no stoplights and a brown-brick school where the town’s children have been educated for 82 years. Over at the McCool Junction Public School, 144 students (K-12) walk to class over creaky-hardwood floors, scratch problems on oak-framed chalkboards and dig into $2 cafeteria lunches. The school seems hopelessly old-fashioned, and the people of McCool like it that way.

That’s how it will stay, too, if Joan Clark, 50—hairdresser, hog farmer’s wife, mother of seven—prevails. An unlikely rebel, Clark is heading up a grassroots effort to rescind a new aid formula that cuts the state’s share of McCool’s school funding by 61 percent this year, putting pressure on the town to join a regional school district. In Clark’s view, if McCool lost its own school, the town would lose something more—its very identity and reason for being, a predicament hundreds of other Nebraska communities are facing.

When Clark first read about the revised funding formula in late 1997, she was shocked that some schools were already folding. “I thought, ‘This will not happen here!’ ” she recalls. Then her daughter Monica, now a 16-year-old sophomore, pleaded at dinner one night, “Mom, you’ve got to do something. I don’t want to graduate from York”—a high school eight miles away. That’s when Clark started calling everyone in town. “We’re in trouble,” she said. “What can we do?”

The school, founded in 1887, occupies a central place in the life of the town. (For homecoming last fall, for example, virtually the entire town turned out for chicken, Rice Krispies bars and a bonfire in the school parking lot.) So folks came out en masse in January 1998 and organized APPLE (Allied People Protecting Local Education). Without the school, “McCool would dry up and blow away,” says Carol Smith, 70, of the class of ’46.

State lawmakers dispute Clark’s charge that they are trying to force small-town schools to consolidate. Rather, says Sen. Ardyce Bohlke of Hastings (pop. 22, 837), they were simply responding to a statewide outcry to reduce property taxes. Educating a student in McCool’s school costs about $7,000 a year, she points out, compared with the $5,000 state average. Says Bohlke, chairwoman of the State Education Committee: “McCool’s residents can keep their school—they can raise their property taxes.”

But the town can’t afford to make up the difference, says Clark, and there are more important issues than just money. Classes at McCool are small, students can play on any team they want, and there’s a sense of camaraderie that many bigger schools lack. “The only thing we don’t get here is drugs and a bunch of Mickey Mouse classes,” says Eric Clark, 18, Joan’s nephew. “Put me in the real world, I think I’d come out fine.”

Many McCool teachers share Joan Clark’s outrage. State legislators “only look at input,” complains Grant Fisher, 34, who teaches shop and accounting, coaches football and girls’ basketball and drives a 60-mile school bus route. “They don’t look at output: graduation rates [McCool boasts a scant 1 percent dropout rate], test scores, impact on the community.”

Though Clark’s fight to save McCool’s school faces serious obstacles, her husband, Denny, 50, has faith she’ll win. “You tell her to take a hill, and she takes it,” he says. Adds Joan Clark: “They thought we’d fall like dominoes if they took our money away. But I’m too bull-headed for that.”

Bruce Frankel

Kate Klise in McCool Junction

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