For the last time on Saturday, three seniors crossed the stage in the Wolford Public School gymnasium and accepted their diplomas.
On Friday, the small school in northeastern North Dakota closed due to a lack of qualified applicants for open teaching positions and budget constraints. The school, which was established in 1914, served about 40 students this past year.
"We've all been grieving the death of a school," said Jeff Slaubaugh, president of the Wolford School Board. "It's been a really tough time for our community."
For several months the school board has been contemplating how to best serve the needs of students with teachers retiring and the district struggling to find their replacements.
"That was the biggest challenge, finding teachers," Slaubaugh said.
Superintendent Larry Zavada said this has been an ongoing issue, and the district at times hasn't received one applicant for an opening.
"We have a statewide and nationwide teacher shortage," Zavada said, adding that it is difficult to recruit younger people to work in rural areas.
At least one other small school district in North Dakota has closed in recent years. A school board decided last year to dissolve Amidon school district. The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction does not keep track of districts that close, according to spokesman Dale Wetzel.
Earlier this month, the Wolford School Board made the decision to shut down the school. The district has also been stymied by budget constraints, and this year had to cut busing. The move saved the district about $57,000, according to Zavada.
"Had we continued to offer busing this year, we would not have been able to pay our bills to finish the year," Zavada said.
Enrollment in Wolford has remained steady in recent years, ranging from about 39 to 44 students, according to state enrollment data. State funding has also remained steady, according to Zavada.
"Staying steady is good, but staying steady is not bringing in any other revenue," he said.
Zavada said the school had roughly nine full-time employees — "a wonderful staff, top to bottom" — that have remained dedicated to working at the school for years, despite not receiving health insurance.
One such employee is Rhonda Slaubaugh, who has been the school's secretary for 32 years. Slaubaugh and Zavada had desks about four feet apart, and the pair get emotional when talking about the years they've spent at the school.
"It's like we're family," Slaubaugh said. "I think that's what's making it even harder."
Zavada has been at the school for 36 years, including 17 years as superintendent. He remembers when most of his students were born, and he can recall teaching some of their parents.
Now, Zavada is concerned for his students, who will need to find a new school in the fall. He's also worried about his employees, who will be forced to drive 20 to 25 minutes to a nearby town for work.
On Tuesday, Zavada said neighboring schools will host an informational session for students and their parents to let them know what their options are. The students could potentially go to Rugby, Rolette or Cando.
Wolford teachers, staff and administrators spent the last week of school doing what they've done for so many years: tending to students and preparing for graduation. They also dealt with interviews with other media outlets about the school closing, which Zavada said they welcomed.
"People wonder why (we're closing) and we have to let them know why," he said. "The (school) board explored every possible avenue. It was gut-wrenching and heartbreaking."
But Zavada said the decision to close the school is what's best for students, who deserve to have a good education and "the opportunities they deserve."
(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)
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