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Keep Maple Grove open

What is rural America? The poets, novelists and political thinkers of this nation have tried to capture its essence over the centuries, but, despite their glorious words, they have never come up with a working definition. They fall short.

And yet all of us know rural America when we see it. The putt-putt of an old, ill-painted tractor struggling to haul a load of hay to an empty, wooden barn. A plume of reddish dust raised by a milk truck barrelling down a gravel road. Wild roses blooming in a ditch. The sting of snow on the cheek swirling across soybean stubble.

There are moments when rural America is no sentimental abstraction, no philosopher’s dream. You can reach out and touch it.

One such moment is driving in the town of Hamburg, Marathon County, on a crisp, fall day and seeing Maple Grove School, its bright red spire reaching skyward against the backdrop of maples burning with color, and children playing in the side yard.

In that one instant, you know exactly what you are seeing. It’s rural America, plain as day. And you hear a small voice in your head that says: we’ve got to keep this going.

That’s why we give our moral support to a petition drive organized by Hamburg citizens to have the Department of Public Instruction’s School District Boundary Appeals Board detach an estimated $47 million worth of town property from Merrill Area School District to Athens School District. The detachment will keep Maple Grove School going.

Maple Grove School, started in 1904, became part of Merrill Area School District during the school consolidation movement in the late 1960’s, but, for decades, that district’s school board, facing financial pressure, has sought to close the K-5 building, like it has many others dotted about Lincoln County. The school district wants to keep the Hamburg children (and the state aid they bring) and bus them to its other elementary schools. The Hamburg community has fought school closure every step of the way and now, trying to give the school a real future, proposes to shift most of the property in the town of Hamburg to Athens School District, which has expressed a willingness to keep the school open.

The fate of Maple Grove School rests with a 12-member board charged with deciding school border disputes. In most cases, the board addresses the petitions of individual homeowners who, living on a school district boundary, want to switch districts. The Hamburg case will be the board’s biggest case in recent memory.

State law details the criteria for this board to make its decision. It must consider transportation, the affected programs in all school districts and the educational needs of all impacted children.

Fair enough. We trust the two school districts and Friends of Maple Grove School will detail how the land shift will affect school finances, bus routes and educational opportunities.

But we think the appeals board needs to look further.

The petition effort of Hamburg citizens is not just about schooling. It is about sustaining the bonds of family and friends cultivated over a century that are realized in a simple institution, a small rural school. Hamburg community pride overflows in the annual school Christmas program, its celebration of veterans and pancake feed featuring locally made maple syrup. The history of the town lives in the school. A $3.5 million trust established by fabled Hamburg silver fox and ginseng entrepreneurs Walter and Mabel Fromm promises a college education to every graduate of Maple Grove School.