In June 2011, residents of the Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale school districts matched drastic times with drastic action.

After more than a year of discussing, debating and deciding the merits of consolidation, voters approved the measure to merge into one district for the 2012-13 school year. And now, the time has come to open the doors to the newly created Tri-City United School District and celebrate the culmination of a long and difficult process.

“It started with the communities themselves and their bold vote,” said Matt Helgerson, Tri-City United superintendent. “It’s been a real team effort.”

The ‘bold’ vote

The process arose from rather dire beginnings. In the fall 2010, the situation for Le Center School District seemed bleak.

Though community members passed a renewal levy on that November’s ballot, two other measures for additional operating funds were rejected. The district already had cut everything from activities to electives to staff. The district’s treasured all-day kindergarten program was in jeopardy. Budgets were drained and students were missing out on opportunities.

And it appeared the situation would only worsen.

“I was talking with Deb Dwyer, and we just said we have to do something different,” said Matt Helgerson, who shared the Le Center superintendency with Dwyer at the time. “So, we asked: ‘What’s the next step?’”

Knowing the district was headed into a disastrous cycle of budget cuts — which often cause families to enroll students elsewhere, thereby prompting more budget cuts — Helgerson and Dwyer began considering something more drastic: consolidation.

District officials approached neighboring districts about the idea. Only Montgomery-Lonsdale showed interest.

Beginning only with an agreement to explore the possibility, the two districts opted into a detailed study by the South Central Service Cooperative. That study generated dozens of meetings, reams of data and much discussion. It pointed to clear educational benefits for students, added security for teachers and buoyed finances.

The measure went to a community vote in June 2011. And despite the fact that a public survey issued before the vote indicated broad support for the measure, school officials remained cautious it could pass muster in small towns that hold tightly to their history.

But it did pass. Though the vote was narrow in some places, all three communities approved.

“It was always scary,” Helgerson said. “We’ve all had those moments where we were scared to jump in.”

Coming together

Even the students seemed a bit nervous to join forces with their peers. That is, until they actually met them.

When Carrie Altomari announced to her Le Center Spanish students that they would have an opportunity to travel to Costa Rica in the summer for a two-week field trip, she said the groans were audible when she advised they’d be traveling with their Montgomery-Lonsdale counterparts.

Nonetheless, 17 students signed up — eight from Le Center and nine from Montgomery-Lonsdale.

At the airport, awaiting their outbound flight, Altomari said it was clear the group wasn’t integrated — yet. By the time they returned, however, the situation had changed completely.

“Now, they’re all Facebook friends,” said Altomari of what is surely the ultimate social barometer for youth. “They were like one big, happy family.”

While at Le Center, Altomari was the only language teacher. Quite simply, if students didn’t register for her class, she’d have no class to teach.

Tri-City United, however, will offer Spanish, German and American Sign Language. As for Altomari, she’ll have multiple sections of beginning and advanced Spanish.

Not only has the consolidation given her a welcome measure of job security, she said, but it has also enriched the educational offerings.

“Hands-down, consolidation was the best opportunity for students,” said Altomari, adding that her own school district — Minnewaska in west-central Minnesota — consolidated when she was in fifth grade. Without that move, she said, Spanish classes would have never been available.

“I honestly don’t think I’d be where I am if our school hadn’t consolidated.”

Crown jewel

To top it all off, Tri-City United can mark its beginning with a new high school.

At the time of the initial consolidation talks, Montgomery-Lonsdale had just received about $10 million in tax breaks from the state through a stimulus measure to prompt school construction. At the time, Montgomery-Lonsdale residents narrowly approved the bond referendum required to begin construction.

That action provided a unique window to discuss consolidation as the districts could plan the new high school together. Now the new building will certainly be a crown jewel of south-central Minnesota high school facilities.

The space is on the site of Montgomery-Lonsdale’s former elementary building. The facility is open and airy with lots of windows, high ceilings in the commons area and wide, breezy corridors.

School officials designed the building with the intent of creating a “campus” atmosphere. As such, the building includes an Internet cafe and a series of lounge/study areas spread throughout.

As an educational facility, the high school will feature state-of-the-art labs for art, biology, chemistry, business and family and consumer science classes. The agriculture lab has an attached greenhouse and a nearby softball field will be repurposed into a school garden. Special education teachers will have their own suite of classrooms and meeting areas. Teachers will have larger-than-average classrooms as well as their own school-issued laptops.

Le Center students will now have a choir program. Montgomery-Lonsdale students will now have access to all-day kindergarten. The football team already has nearly 100 registered players.

Such realities didn’t exist just a year ago, Helgerson said. And now, opportunities are flowering where they were once wilting on the vine:

“We’re doing what we said we were going to do,” Helgerson said. “We want to deliver for our communities.”

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