If ever the times called for unity among Utah educators, those times are now.

Yet a move by the Utah Rural School Association to separate its interests from those of the state as a whole could backfire if it sends the message to legislators and other education-watchers that there is disunity in the ranks.The association proposes hiring its own lobbyist, Darryl McCarty, to represent the interests of rural school districts with education groups and before the Legislature.

McCarty, who had lots of practice as a Utah Education Association lobbyist from 1963 to 1982, feels the rural schools are justified in seeking a bigger voice for themselves when state education interests are discussed.

The small districts have problems that are unique. Communications are not as simple across miles of sagebrush. They can't afford some of the programs and educational "frills" that are common in the larger districts.

On a per-student basis, they say, they are losing money in comparison with their bigger brothers. Money that might have gone to the Necessarily Existent Small Schools program has been dipped into to meet other perceived educational emergencies in the state.

McCarty demonstrates the degree of the rural problem by recalling the comment made by a rural educator in response to the outcry in Jordan District when $4.1 million in programs was lopped from the budget.

The comment: "What are those programs, anyhow?" They don't face cuts in the rural districts simply because those programs don't exist.

The problems for rural districts are real. They need attention.

Winston Gleave, administrator of the State School Boards Association, thinks the larger organizations are trying to address the needs of the rural districts fairly.

He thinks the maverick movement in the hinterlands may be promoted by a small number of superintendents, some of whom don't have the support of their boards.

Some of the rural complaints are outside the bailiwick of the state organizations and beyond their capacity to help, Gleave says.

He is concerned that the Legislature will read the separate lobbyists development as a schism within the education community.

McCarty says efforts will be made not to foster that perception and that the intent is to work together with the larger units to promote mutually beneficial legislation.

"It isn't so much a question of dissatsifaction (with the organizations) as that the rural districts have special needs that need to be met," he says.

"If you think you have a problem, you have one. These districts want to get the attention of those who can help. When push comes to shove, you have to go where push is, and the rurals haven't had clout with the Legislature. If the large organizations spent the time the rurals feel is necessary to do what they feel needs to be done, the urbans would be complaining."

Perhaps the cause of the rural districts is just and perhaps they deserve a bigger voice in education issues.

The concern is that if the two groups do find themselves at loggerheads over issues, both could lose. And in the end, the rurals have more to lose. The numbers tell the tale in advance. There is no way they can outmaneuver, outvote or outpolitic the Wasatch Front.

A united voice - with fair and adequate attention from the education groups to the very real needs of the rural districts - would have more effect when this year's critical legislative session begins.

The groups are meeting this week to discuss questions raised by the splinter effort. Hopefully they can resolve whatever differences are causing the division.