The fog this morning in this little Ohio town in the northwest corner of the state was thick enough to delay school for a couple of hours.
In this part of the Midwest the land is so flat that there is a straight horizontal line where land meets sky miles away. It’s rich farmland, and you can still see farmers working their fields on ancient tractors and herding their Jersey cows into sagging barns. The family farm still exists here, but barely.
Mendon Union High School, with graduating classes of about 20 has been torn down, so local children ride buses to Van Wert schools across the flat roads laid out in rectangles bordering the fields. Van Wert has the highest unemployment rate in the state. Still, local residents support their schools. They expect their kids to attend every day and to graduate, maybe even go on to enroll at The Ohio State University, the giant land grant college in Columbus, or one of its satellite campuses like the one in Lima. This is Buckeye country, and half the patrons at the Pizza Hut buffet last night were wearing t-shirts or jackets with the scarlet and grey block “O.”
The people are unfailingly polite and friendly. Their speech has a distinct twang, noticeable especially when they talk about the upcoming football game with “Meeshigan.”
Van Wert public schools spend $4,777 per student, about 22% less than the national average of $6,058 according to Sperling’s Best Places to Live. Van Wert’s cost of living is also about 22% less than the national average.
Meanwhile, in Scarsdale, New York, per pupil expenditures according to the New York State Report Card, is $14, 823, about three times what Van Wert spends. The average for all New York public schools is $9,485, more than twice the Van Wert number. Even adjusting for cost of living, the disparity is enormous.
When the fog lifts, I think about how school officials in New York State are howling because the Governor has recommended cutting state aid to schools mid-year to address the state deficit. Maybe he should charter a bus and send some of those officials to Van Wert or the thousands of small towns like it throughout the country. Because it’s not always about more money. Sometimes it’s about making it work with what you’ve got.