John Foreman: Small town faces a tough decision on its high school
Elections come and go. With rare aberrations, they involve a small percentage of the electorate reconsidering the same old rascals they've been complaining about for years and re-electing them.
On rare occasions, these voters choose new rascals. This, we term progress.
Once in a while though, in the rarest of rare circumstances, more is on the line. And so it will be April 9 in the comfortable little corner of the world where Moultrie, Douglas and Piatt counties come together some 35 miles southwest of Champaign-Urbana.
There, the choice will be whether the tiny Atwood-Hammond School District should cease to exist, hence to be annexed into the (not much) larger Arthur-Lovington system. It's a decision with no less than the very vitality of those communities at stake.
I won't recite the pros and cons here. Readers in Atwood, Hammond and Arthur have heard them. The rest of you don't really care.
Vevalee Smith, a lifelong resident who spent more than 30 years in the school district before becoming Atwood's first female village board president, says it's the most controversial issue she remembers. The vote will be close, and she's praying the voters say no.
"We've got to keep this school and look out for our town."
As it happens, I know a little more about this particular piece of the planet than most, and I'm not impartial either. I grew up in and around the communities of Hammond, Atwood, Arthur, Pierson and Garrett, and they were good places to do that — bucolic in the literal sense, Mayberry but without the urban issues.
And what the schools lacked in facilities and choices then, they more than made up for with an incubator atmosphere where no one and nothing seemed to slip through the cracks.
Back then, I envied what bigger schools had. In time, I came to understand that I had more. There are decidedly more distinguished graduates of Atwood-Hammond High School, to be sure, but there are few any more proud. I was well served to graduate there in a class of 55, and as I encounter old classmates these many years later, so were they. Fully 10 percent moved on to the University of Illinois.
Still, I confess the luxury of being able to view the situation through a lens of nostalgia. Only 115 students now attend my alma mater, where they are served by a faculty of just 10. Some of the limited choices I had in a school of 200 already have fallen victim to declining numbers.
And the economic challenges of operating tiny schools in a world that tilts inexorably in favor of big over small are difficult to overlook. State funding, of course, is no help.
Superintendent Kenny Schwengel says if voters veto the annexation, Atwood's school board will probably need a tax increase of 90 cents per $100 assessed valuation next year at this time. Just a couple of years ago, the voters said no to 60 cents. Opponents say there are options.
For their part, people in Arthur have been as gracious as I would expect, which is to say far more gracious than necessary. They agreed to form a joint committee to resolve answers for most voters' questions. An elementary school, for example, will remain in Atwood. All current faculty will keep jobs for at least four years. Procedures are spelled out for choosing school colors and team names. Not much has been left in doubt.
Except, of course, what surely are the two questions that matter most.
How long can a little community offer quality schools in the face of rising costs, static tax base and declining enrollment? And, every bit as important, can a community that revolves around its high school maintain any semblance of vitality — even identity — without one?
It's a Hobson's choice I envy no one.
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Amid the serious considerations facing voters in Atwood and Hammond is one — call it frivolous if you will — of nonetheless historic import.
Atwood-Hammond High School just happens to lay claim to one of the nation's most distinctive team names. If there is no Atwood-Hammond High School, there are no Atwood-Hammond Rajahs. And that, let me tell you, is one darned shame.
For those of you among the great unwashed, a Rajah is an Indian prince — not the sort the sort of Indian that engenders all the controversy surrounding, say, Chief Illiniwek — a real Indian, from India. He wears a turban; he wields a scimitar, and he generates (if not always terror in the hearts of his opponents) not one solitary kernel of controversy. He is, in fact, inordinately cool.
Amid legions of cookie-cutter tigers and lions and warriors, he is singular without being silly — even as depicted the last half-century or so in an artful caricature reminiscent of Elmer Fudd in harem pants. The swinging scimitar suggests he should be taken seriously, but the diminutive stature and pointed shoes temper otherwise. He is both ferocious and fun. In short, just about perfect.
Moreover, he is one of just two such mascots in the entire country. The other (which came along later) is a rather dull and dated potentate who represents California's Indio High School. Cute, huh?
This gets tiny Atwood-Hammond, where world recognition is rare, inevitable mention in lists of the best high school mascots anywhere. In Illinois, they are rivaled for originality only by the dubious Effingham Flaming Hearts, the Teutopolis Wooden Shoes and the Hoopeston Cornjerkers. (I regret to inform those in Fisher that a "bunny" is NOT a high school mascot, whatever they may have been told.) Centralia's Orphans recently won a USA Today contest for the best high school mascot in the nation only, I daresay, by virtue of more Internet connections.
Equally important, the A-H Rajah symbolizes something more that a cute play on words. The name was coined by a News-Gazette sportswriter in the 1920s to describe the on-court comportment of an Atwood team coached by the legendary C.E. Rogers. Eddie Jacquin (who named a good many Central Illinois teams) started referring to the Atwood boys as "Rogers' Rajahs." It stuck. The nifty logo came along in the 1960s.
Take small solace, lovers of tradition, that the Rajah name would be transferred to Atwood-Hammond Elementary School. A team nickname for the newly reorganized Arthur-Lovington team (now called the Knights) would be chosen by vote of the student body from among four suggestions approved by the school board.
We all know what great sources of creativity and fun those are.
John Foreman, publisher of The News-Gazette, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 677 in Champaign.