What Do You Do After the Company Leaves?

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THE SEVENTEEN SENIORS at Jack Schertz's government class look around at one another. A visitor has asked how many of them plan to live in Superior after graduation. Jessica Ortega finally raises her hand.

"I'll come back someday, after I go to school or whatever," says Ortega, the high school's student body president and captain of its cheer squad. "I really want to, anyway. This is a really nice place for families, though there's not much for kids to do."

Her classmates also speak shyly of their plans. Many want to go to trade or beauty schools. Others say they will enlist in the military.

A hand-printed sign on a classroom wall says, "I am not here to review the past, but to present the future." The future for these seniors may be brighter than that of Superior's troubled school system.

The school district's problems, of course, revolve around money. It's almost broke.

It has fewer and fewer students. Last year's graduating class had only about 45 students, down from 102 in 1985. The high-school football team had only seventeen players last season.

Money is so short that school administrators can plan only minute by minute. One big worry is the high school itself. Built in 1924, the school still is lovely to look at, but it's falling apart. In the late 1970s, Superior voters passed a $10 million bond for a new high school. Then Magma shut down, and the district had to scrap its plans.

Two predicaments at the high school are fire alarms and asbestos. The state fire marshal has given the district until September to install new fire alarms--at a cost of $100,000--or he'll close it. The mandatory asbestos-removal program will cost the district another $100,000.

No one seems to know where the money will come from.
"If I have to beg at the legislature, I'll beg," says Superior schools superintendent Russell Hoffman, now in his third year on the job. "The last recourse is going back to the taxpayers, but I hate to ask them for a penny more."

Could Superior someday have to close its schools? "I don't even want to consider that possibility," says school board president (and newspaper editor) Yolanda Ewing, "but I suppose we have to talk about it. If you don't have a school, you don't have a community. That's it. This is too depressing to think about."

There's yet another problem: white flight. About forty high school students from Superior attend Ray High in Kearny, 22 miles away. Under state law, they can attend whatever high school they want, as long as that school's district will have them.

"Twenty percent of the kids in Superior are Anglo, but half of the students that go to school elsewhere are Anglo," says Hoffman. "That's white flight. Our teachers are good teachers, and I'm not just saying that. It's the tools we give them to work with that trouble us. Doggone it, there's an inequity. Better facilities have a direct bearing on better education."

Trying to get someone to look at his plight, Hoffman wrote last October to the federal Office of Civil Rights, complaining of a "pattern of segregation." The feds didn't write back. After Hoffman pestered them with a few calls, an official told him that maybe the Justice Department could help. Hoffman hasn't contacted Justice yet.

"What might have to happen isn't pleasant," he says. "Maybe if some parents in Superior think that their kids aren't getting equal educational opportunities or are somehow being discriminated against and sue the state, we might get some help. I don't believe in management by crisis or management by Band-Aid, but it's pretty desperate. Make that very desperate."

Superior native Buck McRae, a 1988 Ray High graduate, says he switched schools for good reason. "I'm white, but that had nothing to do with it," says McRae, who has been hanging around Superior mulling his future since he graduated last May. "I wanted to take ROTC, and I couldn't get that here. I'm going to try to make something out of my life, and it's not going to be here. Going to Ray was my first step out. I'll get out of here, yes, sir."

It galls Russ Hoffman each school day morning when the Ray district sends a bus to the outskirts of Superior. "I'm just waiting for that sucker to come inside our town limits," he says. "I don't know what I'll do."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin