School Consolidation Act of 1941

by Dan Ford

As I sit at my computer day after day looking for football scores and often finding much more, I wonder about all of those places and all of those schools that no longer exist.

Steve Flores, who wrote a book Ghost Town Basketball,[1] encouraged all of us history buffs to dig a little deeper into those smaller schools in New Mexico.  Recently I stopped by Cedarvale (12 miles north of Corona) and walked through the old gym.  The building was built in the early 1930s and abandoned by the 1940s when drought discouraged the homesteading pinto bean growers along with a depression and a world war.  This has caused me to look at the cause of the demise of smaller schools.

In the 1930s places like Forest and McAlister (near Clovis), Farley (in the northeast but not close to anywhere), Stanley (near Moriarty), Monument, Hondo and Roy had football teams.  What happened to those schools?

Certainly the decline of the railroad, which was at the heart of many small towns, and the same reason that made Cedarvale vanish are major reasons.  But there was a more definitive and legal event as well.

Many schools and school districts, particularly in the west, started one-room schools in pioneer locations.  Groups of people settled their homesteads and noticed that 15-20 kids were within a short horse ride of each other.  Thus a school district was established.  A given county might have dozens of districts.  A government position in any county was the County School Superintendent, responsible for traveling around to insure compliance with state standards.

A movement started in the 1940s to consolidate schools.  The New Mexico School Consolidation Act of 1941 started the state down that path.

The Act required schools to consolidate, either voluntarily or by force.  Revisions to the Act stalled the effort but Taos County was one of the first and it reduced the districts from 40 down to 10 by 1942.  By 1949 more than 938 districts were reduced to around 517[2].  That year Bernalillo County consolidated 18 districts into one.  Valencia County consolidated 24 districts into three at Belen, Grants, and Los Lunas.  Today there are about 90 school districts.

The idea was that through consolidation a better quality of education could be provided.  More qualified educators would be required.  More courses and better facilities and equipment would result.  There would be a savings to the educational effort in each county as the County Superintendent job would be eliminated and various district level jobs would be consolidated, allowing more funds into the classroom.  The down side was the cost of transportation to bring students from those far-reaching areas into the hub schools.

New districts were created and so named such as Grants Union High School and Las Cruces Union High School.  Chama and Tierra Amarilla were eventually consolidated into Escalante High School.  Espanola, Hatch, and Hondo all added “Valley” to their consolidated name.  Dozens of non-football schools also consolidated over a 20 year period.

The most famous incident involved West Las Vegas which established its school in 1947 partly because the high school that provided secondary education on that side of the historic town, Highlands High School, was closed in 1946.  Highlands (not to be confused with Albuquerque Highland High School) was part of the college in Las Vegas designed to train and educate teachers.  Its closure as a secondary school left the poorer, generally minority citizens to send kids across town to Las Vegas High School (later renamed Robertson).  The dropout rate increased and the west side folks started their new high school.  But in 1951 it was closed as a part of the consolidation effort by the state Department of Education, saying Las Vegas wasn’t big enough for two districts and two high schools.  Many students went to Immaculate Conception located on the plaza which helped propel IC to a successful status as a small school power for three years.  Political pressure eventually resulted in West Las Vegas High School opening back in 1954.[3]

Another event that affected West Las Vegas as well as all small towns was the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling in 1949 about separation of church and state.  10 counties in northern New Mexico had authorized the Roman Catholic Church to receive public taxpayer funds for education as far back as 1870.  According to the Dixon Case,[4] priests and nuns could no longer wear their religious robes and teach public education or even hold public school on church property according to the Dixon Case.  Dixon is 30 miles northeast of Espanola.  Many small communities could not and did not afford public education.  Instead, they left education up to the local parish or monastery or convent as was the case in Cuba, NM[5].  The 1949 ruling helped curtail Immaculate Conception in Las Vegas and create a vacuum to be filled by the Dons of West Las Vegas High.  Schools, like the one in Cuba, had to be funded by local and state taxpayers, essentially marking the beginning of true public education in northern New Mexico.  I can’t help but believe that athletic programs in those schools did not start until that time, possibly accounting for the perceived inferiority of some sports compared to the southern schools, many in existence since the early 1900s.

School consolidation is familiar to surrounding states as well.  I live in La Plata County, Colorado where the consolidation issue reached in the early 1950s.  38 school districts were consolidated to just three with high schools in Bayfield, Durango and Ignacio.

I miss those little schools.  North Dakota was one of the last to eliminate one-room schools and even before doing so they were respected as one of the best educational system in these United States.

And by the way, Cedarvale was the Tigers and they wore Blue and gold.

 

 

[1] “Ghost Town Basketball, Former High School Basketball Teams of New Mexico” by Steve Flores, New Mexico Starline Printing, 2006

[2] “Consolidated Districts Replacing One-Room School in New Mexico” by Bill Rawlins, 12-8-49, newspaper article in Las Cruces Sun-News, 12-9-1949, page 2.

[3] http://wlvs1.schooldesk.net/Information/History “The Pride of the Dons” by Maurilio E. Vigil

[4] “Remaining and Becoming, Cultural Crosscurrents in an Hispano School” by Shelley Roberts, pg. 42-44.

[5] “Antes, Stories from the Past Rural Cuba, NM 1769-1949” by Esther V. Cordova May

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