Tribune-Herald staff writer Shelly Conlon’s probing Dec. 24 survey of the 2011-12 cost-cutting consolidation of neighborhood schools in Waco Independent School District and whether it set some campuses back academically makes one thing abundantly clear: The option pursued by school officials sure didn’t bolster these schools. Then again, the other obvious option — laying off scores of classroom teachers instead of closing brick-and-mortar campuses where enrollments were flagging — probably wouldn’t have helped, either.

A broader point keeps getting lost whenever parents and taxpayers get rankled at community meetings and blame the school board, which oversaw consolidation of school zones. One reason district leadership acted was because of massive cuts in public education by state lawmakers. When the Legislature cuts school funding by $5.4 billion, districts statewide must get inventive. That means choosing from unpleasant options.

All that granted, Conlon’s Trib story highlights an obvious challenge: When parents or guardians in impoverished neighborhoods are farther from campuses where their children are educated, becoming integrally involved in school activities — say, a parent-teacher night or a student production — can be more daunting. As the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research stressed in its study of local poverty in 2013, transportation ranks high as an impediment for people of limited means.

In that context, Alta Vista Elementary teacher Jo Spark offers a wonderfully illustrative post-consolidation observation of major changes on that South Waco campus: “I remember the first year we opened [as a standard campus, as opposed to a magnet campus]. Parents would come in and say, ‘I’ve got to have my kid. I don’t have enough gas in my car to sit in this line for an hour.’ I’ve never thought about that. It’s 102 degrees and they’ve got other children in the car. Those struggles are real for working families. A lot of them don’t have but one car.”

Robert Jackson, president of the Brook Oaks Neighborhood Association, and vice president Sammy Smith say poverty alone cannot explain why students at several campuses now fare poorly where students before consolidation passed muster academically. While attendance zones may have expanded to the detriment of some parents and students, they also blame instability in campus leadership and a failure by district officials to lay down corrective, long-term plans in the wake of consequential consolidation.

New Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson’s rallying of volunteers, neighborhood associations, churches and nonprofits that in some cases had been allowed to drift away, along with tight collaboration with the Texas Education Agency on novel classroom approaches, may turn matters around in what defies easy analysis by armchair critics. While it’s unlikely neighborhood schools will ever dot communities in numbers once seen, strengthening community networks could make up for such losses. Consider it a fitting 21st-century challenge to us all: Can reliable volunteerism, better parenting, committed social services and innovative teaching suffice long term amid the loss of brick-and-mortar buildings and old but costly neighborhood concepts?