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Iowa school districts cope with when to consolidate - and when to stand alone

'We have to pull together'

Feb 20, 2017 at 12:01 am
    Kids watch out the window of a school bus as they wait to be driven home from Diagonal School in Diagonal on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. This day was the school's homecoming, and students had an early out following a pep rally and indoor parade of miniature floats. The school is too small to have a football team, so they celebrate during basketball season. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    After an overtime win, half the Diagonal girls basketball team rushed courtside to grab clarinets, flutes and a snare drum.

    There are so few students in this southwestern Iowa school district the basketball team’s pep band is made up entirely of basketball players. The teachers can count this year’s graduates on two hands.

    Without enough students to form a football team, they celebrate homecoming at a doubleheader basketball game in January.

    Still sweating and catching their breath, members of the basketball team played the fight song for their own win.

    After the performance, 18-year-old Allison Norris ran back across the court to the girls’ locker room, where empty Gatorade bottles, sweaty socks, cans of hair spray and makeup bags littered the floor.

    She had the length of the boys’ basketball game to shower, curl her hair, apply makeup and slip into an evening gown before walking back onto the court as a candidate for homecoming queen.

    When your graduating class is nine students, she said, you get to do everything.

    With a certified enrollment of 97 students, Diagonal Community School District is the smallest in Iowa. Its main building — home to the high school, middle school, administrative offices and a day care — looms over the town’s main street, which has a gas station and a bank.

    The town’s population peaked 60 years ago, when 600 people lived here. Now, fewer than 350 live in this town, about 90 miles southwest of Des Moines, in Ringgold County.

    The number of students enrolled in a public school determines its funding from the state. With low enrollment comes little money, so keeping the tiny Diagonal district financially viable requires cashing in on school sharing incentives offered by the state and incredibly frugal spending, Superintendent Karleen Stephens said.

    “I call it pounding manhole covers out of nickels,” she said.

    All the walls in the school are painted the same color to save money on paint. Sixth-graders work through long division problems on dry-erase desktops — instead of on sheets of paper, which cost money to replace. And when the budget is strained, Stephens said she’s lucky to have a generous community to fall back on.

    “I’m not saying it’s heaven here every minute, but we know we have to pull together,” she said.

    From thousands to 333

    The base amount of money the Diagonal Community School District — and every other public school district — receives from the state is determined by its number of students. School districts large and small have fretted over what they call small increases in aid approved by the state Legislature in recent years, which have hovered near or below 2 percent in seven of the last eight years.

    While Iowa Department of Education data show the number of public school students statewide has grown over the past five years, population growth has benefitted urban areas.

    An analysis of 2010 census data by Iowa State University sociologist David Peters found only about a quarter of Iowans live in rural counties. A century ago, nearly half did. Rural areas have been consistently losing residents since 1920, according to the analysis.

    Shrinking populations and funding pressures have been a driver for the dissolution or consolidation of scores of public school districts across rural Iowa, explained Tim Gilson, an associate professor in education leadership at the University of Northern Iowa, who has studied school district consolidation.

    “Iowa used to have thousands of school districts if you go back a long ways,” he said. “Now we’re at 333.”

    "They’re more scared that they’re going to lose something they had in the past — a voice, a history, a building. We’re not consolidating to get rid of a building. We’re consolidating to continue to exist."

    - Travis Schueller

    Shared Superintendent of North Kossuth and North Union

    In 1953, when there were 4,588 local school districts in Iowa, the state Legislature passed a law to “encourage the reorganization of school districts,” according to the Iowa Department of Education. That prompted school consolidations across the state, which accelerated again when lawmakers in 1965 passed legislation requiring all areas to be part of a legally constituted school district with a high school.

    Just 50 years ago, there were 122 more school districts than there are now. Most of those disappearing districts have joined with nearby districts, and often more than once. Over the years, the Ledyard and Swea City school districts in north-central Iowa consolidated to form North Kossuth. Nearby, other school districts — Armstrong-Ringsted and Sentral of Fenton — slowly have come together to form the North Union school district.

    While the two resulting districts — North Kossuth and North Union — haven’t consolidated with each other yet, their shared superintendent said both of the school boards that hired him in 2015 are moving in that direction.

    “The point of the consolidation is the benefits that the state provides for it,” Superintendent Travis Schueller said. “Why would you consolidate if everything is working fine? The point of consolidation is to receive the benefits.”

    Iowa offers additional public dollars to districts for both sharing positions — such as a superintendent — and for reorganizing into one district.

    This school year, the 400-student North Union and 300-student North Kossuth school districts share nearly everything, Schueller said. Students in the districts attend the same middle school and high school. Many administrators also are split between the districts.

    “And they pretty much have branded all their schools as North Union,” Schueller said. “It can get very confusing to some people to realize there still is a North Kossuth.”

    Under their sharing agreement, each school district bills the other at the end of its fiscal year, Schueller said. The districts also receive more money from the state for sending the students away to another district — one-tenth of the percentage of the pupil’s school day spent in the other district.

    "There are a lot of rational reasons why it makes sense to do it. The rational reasons don’t always win out over the emotional issues."

    - Terry Kenealy

    Shared superintendent of Battle Creek-Ida Grove and Odebolt-Arthur

    School districts can collect those extra dollars for a maximum of three years. Schueller said his districts are hoping to time their consolidation to 2019, when their sharing incentives expire. If the two districts become one, the clock on the state incentives restarts, and it can collect for sharing with yet another district.

    In every consolidation, at least one school district’s identity is lost. It can be an emotional process, especially for a small community. But in North Kossuth, Schueller said many already have lost their attachment to the district, though they remain committed to the school building that’s still in Swea City.

    “They’re more scared that they’re going to lose something they had in the past — a voice, a history, a building,” Schueller said. “We’re not consolidating to get rid of a building. We’re consolidating to continue to exist. … I grew up in rural Iowa and I’m biased, but I hope rural Iowa continues to exist.”

    West of Schueller’s districts, another two districts have a long history of sharing costs, buildings and personnel. But for the Battle Creek-Ida Grove — with 634 students — and Odebolt-Arthur — 340 students — school districts, a vote last fall to consolidate turned bitter and ended in failure.

    “You’re talking about a community, and you feel like you’re going to lose your identity,” said Terry Kenealy, the shared superintendent of both districts. “It becomes a tough one.

    “There are a lot of rational reasons why it makes sense to do it. The rational reasons don’t always win out over the emotional issues.”

    To pass, the consolidation vote needed a majority in both school districts. Fifty-seven percent of the smaller district, Odebolt-Arthur, voted no. Residents there worried they’d lose another school — they lost their high school when the whole grade-sharing agreement began.

    For eight years, the districts have shared several administrative positions, and many staff members — the nurse, librarian and a handful of teachers — travel back and forth between districts. The school districts have a shared middle school and a high school, which earns them state incentives.

    But next year, as the three-year window for the districts closes, those will expire.

    “If we don’t reorganize, we’re not going to be able to two-way whole grade share, and we could possibly lose whole grade sharing totally,” Kenealy said. “It is a reality. It truly is a possibility.”

    Without whole grade sharing, the smaller Odebolt-Arthur school district will be responsible for providing the same base curriculum as every other district in the state with a shrunken budget.

    Meeting the state’s list of requirements, which has emphasized science, engineering and technology courses in recent years, can stretch small, rural districts, UNI’s Gilson said, as the curriculum can be costly and qualified teachers are hard to draw.

    “If your enrollment stays stable, you have a better chance of survival. But that also will be determined by what the state gives us in supplemental state aid,” said Kenealy, a career superintendent who has been shared between the districts for two years. “The thing that all districts are fighting now is how to sustain programs with less and less revenue coming in from state supplemental aid.”

    Iowa legislators approved a 1.11 percent funding increase for kindergarten-through-grade-12 education in February. Superintendents across the state have said that won’t be enough to maintain current services.

    A slow death sentence

    Will Iowa ever stop losing school districts?

    “I think, limit-wise, it’s only going to be based on geography,” UNI’s Gilson said. “Otherwise, I think it’s going to be a matter of a slow death for many school districts.”

    The Iowa Department of Education has no stance on whether consolidation should continue, spokeswoman Staci Hupp said, or what the ideal size of a student body should be.

    “We’re not so interested in size,” she said. “We’re interested in can you run a quality program and operate in the black?”

    Gilson said small school districts need to meet state and federal expectations, adequately educate students, recruit and maintain quality teachers, and still pay the bills to survive.

    “But that’s a lot of ifs there,” he said. “Shrinking enrollment is a slow death sentence.”

    Losing a school often spells the end for its town, too. The idea of losing an entire community — a hometown, a childhood, an identity for many — has brewed fear and anger.

    “You don’t have to be a research scholar to see what happens to towns when they lose their schools,” Gilson said.

    The school district was shuttered three years ago in Clearfield, a town a few miles west of Diagonal. Jackie Hopkins, who was the elementary school’s principal, now volunteers in the Diagonal district with her husband, Michael, who is the guidance counselor.

    When Clearfield no longer was financially viable, people there tried to find a nearby district that would consolidate with them. No one would. When it dissolved, its territory and students were split among four nearby districts.

    “So much anger,” Jackie Hopkins recalled. “People are very personal about education. Everybody was crying. It was hurtful.”

    To many in Diagonal, losing their school is unthinkable.


    The town of about 325 people nearly filled the gym’s bleachers for the homecoming basketball game in January. Almost every girl in kindergarten through eighth grade was a cheerleader — periodically, they got up to shake silver pom-poms, the younger girls excitedly looking up at the older ones.

    Allison Norris, who was crowned homecoming queen, once was one of them. As a toddler, she went to the school’s day care about 100 yards away. Her graduating class, she said, feels like a family. She grew up in this school.

    “The attitude is we will never, ever fold,” Michael Hopkins said. “They’re going to have to shut us down, and that will be a fight.”

    The high school students here spend half the school day 15 miles away at Mount Ayr High School, where they take elective courses. Superintendent Stephens said those are too expensive for Diagonal itself to provide.

    But students’ overall education hasn’t been affected by the school district’s budget — test scores are good, the dropout rate is nonexistent and participation in extracurriculars is high, she said.

    “The minute we say, ‘Oh, we better not (spend money on) that because we might not be here in five years’, that will be it because that’s not good for kids,” Stephens said.

    “But,” she added, “they’ve been talking about us not being here since the 1950s.”

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