Iowa school districts consolidating in tough times

Administrators worry trend will only worsen

DES MOINES — The number of public school districts has shrunk to 348 in Iowa and will continue to get even smaller.

A dozen K-12 school districts have approved plans to merge into six new districts over the next two school years and voters in another eight districts soon will decide whether to approve four additional mergers in fiscal 2015.

“I think this is another little bubble of consolidation that’s moving through,” said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the state Department of Education.

However, school officials are concerned the bubble will balloon into something bigger with state sharing incentives and funding help for schools set to expire in fiscal 2014, and new reforms pushed by Gov. Terry Branstad starting to build pressure on districts to implement teacher leadership initiatives and meet statewide core requirements for classes that are designed to boost student achievement and return Iowa schools to world-class status.

“I think that eliminating the incentive may accelerate this in some places that were already marginal,” said state education director Jason Glass. “In some cases, we have school districts that have hung on, and this state incentive has been a lifeline to them where they really probably should have considered consolidation earlier so they could provide quality services to their kids.”

At the same time, Glass stressed that the reforms being contemplated are not designed or intended to put undo pressure on smaller districts and efforts have been made to build in flexibility to aid districts at all levels in voluntarily configuring a teacher leadership structure that works for them.

“As we ratchet up the quality, which we need to do, it will put a greater demand on all of our schools,” he said.

Tom Downs, executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards, said there is considerable concern among smaller districts that they aren’t seeing growth and may not have the wherewithal to reassign up to 10 percent of their teachers to serve in leadership roles and still have the finances to address the new structure the proposed career ladder creates.

“We share those concerns,” Downs said.

“Is forced consolidation going to be the byproduct of this reform movement? I think there’s no doubt that is a question on the part of some small districts,” he said.

Funding concerns

Some of districts’ planning decisions will depend on where lawmakers land on a supplemental state aid or “allowable growth” increase for fiscal 2014. Budget targets issued last week had Republicans at 2 percent, or a $74 million increase, and Democrats at 4 percent, which equated to a $148.6 million increase.

Historically, Iowa saw 4,652 school districts in 1950-1951 school year shrink to 1,575 one decade later. That number winnowed to 485 by July 1965, with another 137 school district reorganizations taking place since then to arrive at the current 348 district count.

According to October 2012 school enrollment data, Iowa’s overall student count in elementary and secondary schools increased by 2,741 — with 173 districts reporting enrollment gains totaling 6,028 pupils, 171 districts reporting enrollment declines totaling 3,287 pupils and four districts with no change in enrollments.

Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, said he is offering legislation to renew those incentives for districts looking at different delivery models that address declining enrollments, transportation issues and other challenges. He also wants to see the state invest more in broadband infrastructure that connects more school buildings on satellite campuses in outlying communities.

Other options might be for school districts to enlist the help of retired teachers as mentors to help smaller districts build career ladders for beginning and veteran instructors, and school officials may look at what other states have done to designate necessarily small school districts where consolidation is not a good option, he said.

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