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School consolidation and mad, motivated mothers

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionAspen High School did not have a large band in the 1950s, but parents refused to trade local pride for a larger band in a consolidated school district.
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I remember hearing my mother, who rarely displayed rage, announce at the dinner table, “They want to bus the kids to Glenwood!”

As a fourth-grader who walked a few blocks to school each day and journeyed to Glenwood maybe once a year, my ears perked up. Mother was mad and that really got my attention. She was reacting to rumors that statewide school consolidation would force Aspen High School students to attend school in Glenwood. Like most rumors, plans for an Aspen/Glenwood consolidation were more myth than reality, but that opening salvo committed our family against consolidation of any kind.

Consolidation of small rural schools into larger districts started as a goal of the Progressive Era. In farming states, children in isolated one-room schools received an inferior education compared with those attending larger, urban high schools. One of my aunts, the first in her family to go to college, taught in one-room schools on Missouri Heights and Cattle Creek during the early 1930s.

The few students who continued their education took up residence in larger towns for high school, presenting a hardship for ranching/farming families. The first round of local school consolidation was accomplished when families assembled the resources to buy automobiles to cooperatively transport their children to Aspen, Carbondale, Glenwood and Basalt.

Sputnik and Cold War competitiveness motivated Colorado lawmakers to mandate statewide school consolidation in 1957. They required that each county draw up plans. A belief that “bigger is better” infected education’s policy makers. Few paid attention to research suggesting that the minimum “bigness” required to provide curricula sufficient to compete with the Russians was 100 students per grade level. All the high schools of the Roaring Fork Valley would have had to consolidate in order to attain that student population.

County citizens’ committees drew up the consolidation plans, but the plans snagged when crossing county lines. Pitkin County came up with a plan to consolidate the Basalt, Carbondale and Aspen districts, immediately drawing the ire of Garfield County, home of the Carbondale district. Eagle County’s committee willingly released their Basalt district to Aspen. Pitkin County’s Redstone presented a problem due to its distance from both Aspen and Basalt.

Aspen’s parents held a totally different agenda from that of the local committee. Mad, motivated mothers opposed bussing students to any centrally located high school. Local pride provided even greater motivation. In the 1950s, although small in enrollment, Aspen High sent a much higher percentage of graduates to college than did neighboring schools. To put it bluntly, Aspen’s mothers did not want to water down their educational standards by joining with inferior schools (as they saw it).

The consolidation committee, overwhelmed with opposition, took the easiest path: a non-binding public vote. That 1959 plebiscite attracted the highest voter turnout in memory. Voters split 340 against consolidation versus 24 in favor.

Aspen retained its high school and it nearly doubled in size when more rural students were bussed to Aspen. Furthermore, the education debate produced a bond measure that added three classrooms and a gym to the Red Brick School.

Within a few years, the smaller high schools in the area consolidated: Eagle and Gypsum, Redcliff and Minturn, Silt and Newcastle. Redstone, Basalt and Carbondale consolidated into the Roaring Fork District.

Bigger is not always better. Educational experts ignored the power of community pride and high school sports in towns such as Basalt and Carbondale.

When they consolidated, Basalt students were bussed to Carbondale. The first fall football season was barely manageable. Carbondale’s coach, Sonny Darien, dealt with more fights among his own players than between those of opposing teams. His solution was to play with platoons, alternating Basalt players and Carbondale players. That solution did not transfer easily to basketball with only five on the court at one time. After enduring a year of rival-town tension, the district remained consolidated but high school students returned to their hometown schools.


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