PICHER, Okla. (AP) - Picher-Cardin schools opened last week for what some say may be their last year as residents continue to leave an area that has been designated as one of the nation's most polluted areas.
The former lead and zinc mining hub has been on the Superfund list for two decades. Its 40 square miles in far northeastern Oklahoma's Ottawa County pose new hazards at every turn - mine collapses, open mine shafts, acid mine water that stains Tar Creek orange and mountains of lead-contaminated mine waste.
Picher this year has only 90 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. There are no athletic, band or arts programs.
It was expected there would be no school in Picher at all this year, but patrons voted 142 to 132 in February to keep the school open.
About 200 students transferred out of the district a couple of years ago, dropping enrollment to 145, and many of the 90 who remain are taking it day to day.
Some students and teachers expect to leave when a federal buyout of homes is executed. Others expect to stay with the school until it closes, which appears inevitable.
“It's a sad thing to happen to the school,” said Sue Sigle, a 1966 graduate of Picher who has taught there for 37 years. “But the students are happy to be here. There are a lot who require academic attention, and they will get it.”
Sigle has eight second- and third-grade students in her class. The combined kindergarten/first-grade class has seven students.
“It's our responsibility to provide a quality education to our students,” Superintendent Don Barr said.
Barr said the school's enrollment will change in the coming months. Some students will move as the Tar Creek buyout proceeds.
Leslie Rice, librarian and English teacher for the past 31 years, plans to retire when the school closes.
Three months after taking her first teaching job in 1976, Rice vowed to herself she would not leave Picher, but would retire there.
“I am taking it year by year,” she said. “I'm going to miss the school.”