Population shift continues to hurt rural Iowa school districts

Bennett school district elementary principal Gene Schroeder said his district had 540 students in 1975. “We’re down to 1
Bennett school district elementary principal Gene Schroeder said his district had 540 students in 1975. “We’re down to 189 this year,” he said.

A “demographic hole” continues to depopulate the state’s rural areas, according to Iowa State University sociologist David Peters.

“It’s not to the point where towns will be coming off the map,” but the ongoing rural-to-urban shift will challenge the ability of small school districts to remain viable, Peters said.

Iowa’s demographic hole — created by the disproportionate rural-to-urban movement of Iowans in their child-rearing years — snaps into sharp focus when 2010 census data is compared with school districts’ certified enrollment data.

Among Eastern Iowa school districts, for example, Midland in southeastern Jones and parts of three other counties suffered the steepest decline in total residents, 13 percent, during the past 10 years. During that same decade, however, the district’s certified enrollment fell 30 percent.

Similar disparities are evident in almost all of the state’s rural school districts.

As rural Iowa parents move to cities in pursuit of jobs, taking with them the lifeblood of small school districts, they leave behind a fairly stable cohort of older Iowans, who slow the overall population decline in those districts, according to Peters.

Other major contributors to Iowa’s demographic hole, Peters said, are the ongoing industrialization of agriculture, enabling fewer workers to farm the same amount of land, and an influx of retirees to rural areas with natural amenities, such as scenic northeast Iowa.

In the western two-thirds of Iowa, at least 20 school districts are planning to merge into 10 larger ones in the next year and a half. No mergers appear imminent among Eastern Iowa school districts, which continue to economize in other ways to balance their budgets.

Gene Schroeder, an administrator at the rapidly disappearing Bennett school district in Cedar County, said the forces creating the demographic hole are “killing small towns.”

Schroeder, who has been at the Bennett school for 49 years — 13 as a student, 36 as a teacher and administrator — said the district had 540 students in 1975. “We’re down to 189 this year,” he said.

The Bennett district operates a kindergarten through sixth grade school, with its older students going to Durant under a whole-grade sharing arrangement or open-enrolling to Tipton.

“People with kids have to have jobs. Small towns used to provide jobs associated with farming — feed stores, lumberyards, implement dealers — but now the number of farmers is shrinking and the ones left purchase directly in larger cities or on the Internet,” Schroeder, Bennett’s elementary principal, said.

He said he thinks the decline of small rural school districts is irreversible. “Every small school is hanging on for dear life,” he said.

While Schroeder said he doubts that state government will order small schools to close, he said a continuing lack of assistance will leave them little choice.

“I can’t tell you we will be here three years from now,” he said.

At Midland during the past decade, the district has closed two buildings and substantially reduced staff to compensate for a certified enrollment decline from 791 to 554, said Superintendent Brian Rodenberg, who also serves as the district’s middle and high school principal.

Although the district has engaged in “no serious talk about reorganization with other districts,” the demographic hole “is a fact of life we are going to have to deal with,” he said.

Several Eastern Iowa school districts are sharing superintendents as a means to control costs. They include Turkey Valley and South Winneshiek, Belle Plaine and HLV, Keota and Mid-Prairie and Iowa Valley and English Valleys.

Mark Schneider, superintendent at both the demographically stable Mid-Prairie district at Wellman and the Keota district, which has lost 21 percent of its students in the past decade, said the experience has opened his eyes to the challenges facing shrinking rural districts.

While Mid-Prairie has resources available for regular curriculum updates and technology planning, for example, at Keota “it is whatever we can afford,” Schneider said.

In the Oelwein district, which closed an elementary school last year, certified enrollment has fallen from 1,632 to 1,293 in the past decade. Of 12 teachers and an administrator retiring this year, “we’re looking to replace only those we have to,” said Superintendent Steve Westerberg.

Oelwein, which is projected to lose another 87 students in the next five years, must create or attract good-paying jobs in order to dig out of its demographic hole, Westerberg said.

Springville Superintendent Terry Rhinehart said he thinks improved and expanded housing availability would help his district stabilize enrollment, which had declined 18 percent in the past decade and is projected to decline another 12 percent in the next five years.With Springville situated on a four-lane highway about 10 miles from Cedar Rapids, “I think we have a chance to grow the district if we can turn the housing around,” he said.

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