NE Iowa Schools Combine As Merger Trend Continues

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — With voter approval, the Sumner and Fredericksburg school districts become the latest to merge into one continuing the state's fast-paced trend of small district consolidations.

Voters in the two northeast Iowa districts passed the proposal Tuesday. It required a simple majority but passed with 96 percent approval. The districts, which have shared academic programs, buildings, and teachers for nine years, will merge on July 1, 2014.

Both districts have been losing students — Sumner enrollment dropped 1.2 percent to 574 students from 2008 to 2012 and Fredericksburg is down 3.4 percent to 255 students in that period.

The state pays the districts about $6,000 per student, which means when enrollment falls, so does the budget.

The same factors have been playing out in rural Iowa districts for decades, creating a rapid reduction in the number of school districts over the last 60 years.

In 1950 more than 4,600 school districts dotted the Iowa countryside. By 1970 the number had declined to around 450. Currently, the Iowa Department of Education reports 348 districts.

Much of the decline in the last 30 years stems from the farm crisis of the 1980s when many farmers forced off the farm left to seek a job elsewhere and never returned, said Jeff Berger, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. Dwindling population caused enrollment to fall in rural areas and many districts didn't have the revenue to maintain required programs to continue.

"Rural schools looked different after that and still do to this day," he said. About 65 percent of school districts in Iowa have declining enrollment and decreasing revenue, he said.

Many districts have relied on state budget guarantee programs for the past decade to keep revenue stable. One program established in 2005 will end this year and small districts with declining budgets likely will be forced to cut costs. Some will not be able to sustain the required programs to stay in business.

That means more mergers. Berger said the department knows of four districts merging next year and six districts are exploring consolidation the following year. He said consolidating districts must have an enrollment of at least 300 students after they merge.

In July Forest City and Woden-Crystal Lake consolidate into the new Forest City district and East Central combines with Preston to become Easton Valley.

While some mergers are harmonious, others are not. For some it signifies a loss of community identity, for others it means children must travel further from home to school.

The East Central and Preston merger created tension among neighbors in the small communities of Miles and Sabula which make up the East Central District.

East Central has preferred to send students in seventh through 12th grade to the Northeast high school in Goose Lake but maintains local elementary schools in Miles and Sabula. Preston sends some of its high school students to Maquoketa but also has its own high school and elementary.

A group of citizens began in 2010 to push for a merger between Preston and East Central.

Many in the East Central district liked things the way they were and resented being pushed to merge with Preston. Dissention turned into a legal fight challenging whether the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency had the authority to authorize a merger vote after it received a petition seeking a merger. The case ended up in the Iowa Supreme Court. The court ruled last May that a vote could move forward.

In September voters in Preston approved the merger with 86 percent approval. In East Central, however, the vote was 50.7 percent in favor, barely enough to pass the simple majority requirement.

"A lot of people are ticked off," said Crystal Gray, a member of a merger opposition group who has daughters attending Northeast high school under the sharing agreement. She said people don't believe the budget of the combined district is accurate and many fear another merger will be coming in a few years because the combined district with about 600 students still won't be big enough to be financially viable.

The tension from the hard-fought merger campaign remains.

"It really has torn the community in half," she said of the East Central district. "People don't talk to one another."

She said as many as 160 students in East Central refuse to attend school in Preston and will use the state's open enrollment law to continue attending the Northeast high school. That loss of students already raises questions about the combined district's budget, she said.

The merger goes into effect in July.

Preston Supt. Bob Lagerblade said he's won't know how many students open enroll to another district until March.

The school board elections in December resulted in four board members elected from East Central and three from Preston. The equal representation is helping to heal some of the differences form the merger vote, he said.

Lagerblade said the merger was necessary to give students more course selection. The combined district will be more efficient.

"The first reason do it was to provide better opportunities for our kids," he said. "All the business people out there understand that it's also more about being more efficient with our money."

Preston district enrollment fell 3.6 percent since 2008 and East Central had fallen 14 percent.
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