The number of Iowa’s public-school buildings and districts has been declining steadily for decades.
The number of school districts has dropped nearly 11 percent since the 2000-01 school year, hitting 333 districts during the 2016-17 school year. Meanwhile, the state has 202 fewer school buildings, according to Iowa Department of Education data.
Population loss and reduced enrollments in rural areas, tight budgets, difficulty finding teachers and the need to meet government mandates are all among the factors playing into consolidation, said Tim Gilson, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa.
School mergers can be a benefit if districts offer additional programming — and the state offers districts incentives if they share resources.
Even so, decisions around which buildings to close can be heart-wrenching and potentially economically damaging for local communities.
“It really just comes down to that emotional and political issue because you lose a school, you’re going to lose your identity. We’ve seen towns become ghost towns because they’ve lost that,” Gilson said, though his research has not shown that students suffer academically from consolidation.
Gilson does not expect Iowa’s school consolidation trend to reverse itself, especially when it comes to building closures.
“Where you have made cuts based on a financial need and economy of scale, unless you’re in an urban or metro area, I don’t see that changing,” he said.
Some districts, particularly those that have already merged, may not be able to combine any further, though. State law currently restricts one-way bus travel for students to one hour.
“It has to reach a point, at least in some areas, where you really can’t consolidate anymore because ... you can’t get so large that it impacts the amount of time elementary and secondary students are on a bus,” he said.
Gilson said Iowa schools facing consolidation would benefit from continued state support, such as the incentives currently offered for sharing resources. Iowa could also look at ways to reduce transportation costs for districts, he said.
“There has to be some looking at helping districts defray transportation costs because on paper that’s one of the biggest immediate expenses and inefficiencies and negatives to consolidation,” Gilson said.
— In each edition of Iowa Ideas magazine, “How We Got Here” will look at an important trend in the state, how it happened and why it matters.
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