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Re-2 schools offer history lesson

Dale ShrullPost Independent Managing Editor

Editor’s Note: With the opening of Coal Ridge High School between Silt and New Castle set for Tuesday, the Post Independent is rerunning parts of a story that appeared in the Rifle Citizen Telegram on April 18, 2002. The story details some of the history behind the high schools that were once in New Castle and Silt, and how it was eventually decided to send students to Rifle to attend one districtwide high school.Throughout most of the 1960s, there was a struggle between towns involving traditions and loyalties so strong that it would appear that no one would ever win. The heated battle within the Re-2 School District divided most of the population of western Garfield County.Lawsuits, screaming matches, fist fights, recall elections, and bond issue after bond issue, were all part of the turbulent time of the 1960s.When it was all over, students from New Castle and Silt lost their high schools and were forced to attend a districtwide high school in Rifle.”It was an interesting time, a very interesting time,” said Ross Talbott, a New Castle resident who was in the middle of the battle for its entirety.For decades, separate high schools existed in Rifle, Silt and New Castle. All with their own school colors, mascots, sports teams, traditions and loyalties. There was the blue and gold of the Rifle Union High School Bears; the black and silver of the Silt Pirates; and the orange and black of the New Castle Tigers.Silt and New Castle had tiny graduating classes, as few as five and up to 12. In sports, the Pirates and Tigers were bitter rivals, pitting farm boy against farm boy, rancher against rancher, friend against friend, and cousin against cousin.In August 1963, Rifle, Silt and New Castle made up the new Re-2 School District. The plan was to combine the New Castle and Silt high schools and junior high schools with junior high students attending New Castle in the building that still stands on Main Street. The high school would be in Silt in a building that was eventually destroyed.A new schoolThe separate high schools of Silt and New Castle graduated their final classes in May 1963.The new high school would be a new start in all areas – name, mascot and school colors. The combined school became the Riverside High School Falcons with Kelly green and gold as their colors.Twenty-three seniors graduated from the first Riverside class in May of 1964. In 1965, the football team advanced to the semifinals of the state playoffs and in the spring of 1966, the Falcons won the Class A Western Slope District track championship. All seemed to be going well at the combined high school of Riverside.But as summer arrived, so did the unrest within the school district.Butch Pressler, of Silt, who was a member of the inaugural graduating class from Riverside, joked about how well things were going between the two towns. “It seemed like all the New Castle boys dated the Silt girls and all the Silt boys went out with the New Castle girls.”With large-scale projects like the Rifle Gap development and the oil shale production, the population of Rifle was expected to jump. It was determined that a new high school was needed to keep up.”We didn’t want to send our kids to Rifle,” Talbott said. “There were a lot of reasons. One of the issues was size (of the school and classes); another was transferring them out of town.”A bond issue in February of 1965 failed by a 2-1 margin. An amazing 90 percent of New Castle residents turned out for the election. Silt and New Castle residents voted heavily against, while the bond issue carried in Rifle.It was a trend that would continue.By the fall of 1965, school district enrollment increased by more than 200 students. In October 1965, another bond issue hit the ballot, and the result was the same. In New Castle, out of 232 ballots cast, 226 voted against. In Silt, the result was 142 to 33 against the $1.25 million bond issue.Safety concernsThings went smoothly for a while, and then safety concerns came up at both Silt and New Castle schools.Many questioned the findings, especially at Riverside High School in Silt. Some viewed it as a ploy to close the school. Inspectors were concerned that the building had major structural problems. By the summer of 1966, the school board approved a plan for one high school to be located in Rifle. More than 130 people attended the meeting.The heated debate even resulted in a fist fight between a Silt rancher and a school board member after the meeting.Another bond issue was presented to voters in 1966. Prior to the bond issue, it was determined that the foundation of the Silt school was shifting and the building had to close before the start of the school year in September.In August, the school board voted to send the Riverside High School students to New Castle for the fall session. A week later, the school board reversed its decision and voted to send all the high school students in the district to Rifle.Then came the bond issue, and the result was the same, but the difference was a mere 22 votes.Going to courtAfter three failed bond issues, some Silt and New Castle residents sought separation from Re-2. They formed a group called Riverside School Association.In January of 1967, Re-2 agreed to “divorce” Silt and New Castle from the school district, citing it was in the best interest of the families and students of Rifle.A fourth bond issue was slated for March 1967, with Rifle as the only town remaining in the school district. It appeared that the $1.5 million bond issue would pass.But less than a month before the election, a house-group of the Legislature killed the school-district separation, sending the vote to all three towns again. The bond issue failed for a fourth time, with a margin growing to 153.In March of 1968, a lawsuit was filed by Riverside School Association against the Re-2 district. The suit charged that the Silt building could have been repaired and not closed. It had now been 22 months since the buildings had been condemned.The trial between the two dragged on until December 1968, but a decision wouldn’t be rendered until October 1969.The ruling district court favored Re-2, and also allowed for the demolition of the high school in Silt. The buildings were demolished in 1972.A 1967 survey indicated that 95 percent of New Castle and Silt Students disliked being bused to Rifle.Talbott, who had five children graduate from Rifle High School, was eventually voted to the school board serving from 1980-89.The battles between the three towns from 1963-69 left an indelible mark on western Garfield County. The decision to create one high school for the entire school district impacted thousands of students through the years. It was a sad end to three tiny high schools where traditions, loyalties and history died, and remain only in the memories of the men and women who were once known as Tigers, Pirates or Falcons.The battles between the three towns from 1963-69 left an indelible mark on western Garfield County. The decision to create one high school for the entire school district impacted thousands of students through the years. It was a sad end to three tiny high schools where traditions, loyalties and history died, and remain only in the memories of the men and women who were once known as Tigers, Pirates or Falcons.


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