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Wolford School to close after 105 years
May 17, 2019

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Wolford School Principal and Superintendent Larry Zavada busied himself with end-year activities this week, much as he's done in the past thirty-five school terms he's served there.

This year's end, his thirty-sixth at the rural school, was very different.

"It's like a bad dream," Zavada said quietly as he stopped at his desk in the front office.

Wolford's school board voted last week to close the school, with its student population of 46 kindergarten through 12th graders, permanently as of Friday. The school's class of 2019, all three of them, will graduate today.

"Right now, there are current staff positions that we could not fill, and future staffing concerns. And there are financial constraints, too, but we could have financially made it through 2019-20; it would have been extremely difficult to go another year."

Zavada said the financial constraints come from the school's dwindling student count.

Most of the children attending the school come from families extended throughout northern Pierce County; some last names appear in awards and bulletins over and over again. The Wolford families stayed devoted to their school even as difficulties mounted; some who live miles from town provided students rides to and from school when the district could no longer afford bus service.

However, committed families couldn't stop the decrease in student numbers, and Zavada said the board finally decided what they had known they would have to do for years.

"We fought for a long time, but now, there's just no way out of our situation." Zavada noted.

"Money follows students," he continued, describing problems receiving state aid to keep the school open. "So, you have twenty in a class (in larger schools), versus we have 46 kids in K-12, so, we're not even averaging four kids in a class."

Zavada described difficulties staffing the school without the generous benefits packages larger districts have to offer teaching applicants.

"It's like all of North Dakota there are fewer farms, and they're more spread out. There's a statewide teacher vacancy; there's a nationwide teacher vacancy, and when you come to a rural area" he trailed off, reaching for a tissue.

"And right now, we're so fortunate to have the people we have here, because no one gets health insurance, and teachers do not get social security."

No health insurance benefits?

"None," Zavada answered.

"And so, that complicates it, because I've had people call me, and they're interested, and when I mention our salary and benefits, and that we do not have health insurance, and when they hear we don't have health insurance, they're not interested."

"It's different than it was fifteen years ago," he added. "Fifteen years ago, I could hire a single guy, and he didn't care about health insurance, but with increasing costs, it's like, if you don't have health insurance, you have more than two strikes against you."

Zavada also said Wolford's location, which he said was deemed "geographically isolated" by the state, made funding difficult, and the tiny community currently has no housing available.

"We've been advertising since December, and we have no applicants for key positions, so last Tuesday, when the board made the decision," Zavada said, pausing to wipe his eyes.

"There were tears shed by everyone in the room."

"It was interesting I looked at some things here you know, you start reflecting. And so I've been here 36 years at the school, and I looked at our current students. I remember when 30 of them were born," Zavada continued. "I've taught eleven parents who currently have kids in school."

Zavada said some Wolford graduates went on to bigger things; he remembers teaching Nextar Media Group Vice President and General Manager Tammy Blumhagen in the 1980s.

"So, (his career in administration at Wolford) is not typical where you come into a town administrators are there maybe three to five years and away he or she goes."

"This has been, I've seen like the three senior boys, for thirteen years."

Zavada said the school, which was established in 1914, began with a wooden building, which was soon replaced by two brick structures, one in 1917 and a second in 1958.

He credited an active and dedicated group, the Wolford School Community Foundation, for filling gaps over recent years. The foundation supplied funds to purchase a new electric boiler about ten years ago, and in 2010, the group helped buy a new oven for the school kitchen.

The Wolford school board will meet to decide the buildings' fate Tuesday.

Zavada put his hands together as he collected his thoughts when asked what he'll miss most about Wolford School.

"My answers are One A, One B and One C," he answered after pausing. "One A will be the students, One B will be the employees that have been so faithful for so long, and One C will be the parents that have supported us and backed us."

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