What a difference a few months can make.
At the end of last school year, students at Laurens-Marathon were holding sit-down protests in the school, the principal was being removed in an emotional process, patrons were petitioning for the firing of the superintendent, and there were concerns over an feared exodus of students and staff.
As school begins this week, the focus is back on education.
"It's 180 degrees different," Superintendent Iner Joelson told the Pilot-Tribune this week. "It feels like the controversy is behind us, and the teachers, the students, the parents and everyone concerned is excited and having a very positive start to our school year," he said.
David Ross has come on board as middle school/high school principal, replacing Rose Davis. The protests had been sparked when the popular Davis was not given a contract renewal during the last school year.
Ross, most recently a middle school principal in Independence, has a resume that previously included service as an assistant principal, athletic director and high school English teacher. "He has been very well received by everyone," Joelson said.
Several new staff members have been added, as members of last year's staff took other education positions or retired.
Clyde Johnson replaces a retiring ag instructor, Thomas Gary comes on board in art and Talented and Gifted programs from adjunct teaching at Buena Vista University, Terry Ferguson moves up from associate to full teaching in family and consumer sciences, Larry Mersch joins the staff as a high school special ed teacher.
The need for change came as no surprise.
"We knew we had some issues," Joelson said. Three positions were also left unfilled as the district pared down its budget.
Student numbers are down, though not necessarily because of the past controversies.
"We graduated about 20 more kids than we took in, and we lost 13 students during the last school year due to families moving and so forth. It's pretty much the natural ebb and flow, but we aren't sure where the numbers will bottom out," Joelson said.
There has been no mention during the summer of last school year's petition to the school board to remove Joelson, he said.
"It has been good to have the support of a solid board, and now we are able to focus entirely on kids and education, which is exactly what we need to do," the superintendent said.
Like most other area schools, LM is keeping its eyes open for sharing opportunities as rural student populations decline.
"We have never closed the door on that, and we will continue to look at opportunties in whole grade sharing and other options. We just don't think that the Regional School concept that was explored last year is going to fly. We have good facilities that could host a pretty good number of students in a sharing situation, and so do some of the other schools," Joelson said. "I don't think any of us are going to want to go to our public with a $4.50 per thousand tax hike to build a multi-million-dollar building out in the middle of nowhere when we have good buildings already existing."
In curriculum, LM wis adding more college level classes this year. two of its new teachers come directly from college programs, which should help, Joelson said.
"We would like to expand our ag classes to docus on alternative evergy, and to expand classes into mechanical engineering sciiences, but we are not quite there yet," he added.
Laurens-Marathon's softball team, a State Tournament powerhouse just a couple of years ago, could not field enough girls to finish the season this summer, but LM officials feel that numbers will be strong enough to have no problems in foootball, volleyball and other sports and arts extra-curriculars.
"I'm afraid that softball fell victim to all of the emotions that were going on at the end of the last school yeat. It was a very unfortunate circumstance," Joelson said.
LM got a big boost when it was selected to receive a grant through the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for Four-Year-Old Children. This grant allows the Early Childhood Preschool program to offer free of tuition to all resident children who are four years of age on or before September 15.
Already about 24 children are signed up, more than expected. "This is a very good thing for the school system and the communities," Joelson said.
On a more troubling note, the district was included recently on a warning list of Iowa districts that seemingly were engaging in budget deficit spending. The list was printed by the Des Moines Register, labeling LM over half a million dollars in the hole for the projected fiscal year.
"That was so disheartening, that our Department of Education would put out something that negative. I was appalled," Joelson said.
Like other area districts on the list, LM points out that the expenditures for the determination were simply projected from 2007 levels, not taking itno account districts' efforts at saving.
Laurens-Marathon knew long ago that student numbers would go down for this academic year, and had taken actions that are not reflected in the listing.
"We knew we would have to reduce our spending. Since 80 percent of our budget is in staffing, we brought back early retirement and arranged not to replace a few people who were retiring. We would much rather cut through attrition than to tell a staff member their position is going away," Joelson said.
As expected, the district is down perhaps $250,000 in funding for the next upcoming fiscal year, as state per-pupil aid reflects declining student population. "We did everything we could to keep our budget in the black, and we will continue to work very hard to reduce spending and be very responsible in order to keep this district economically viable," Joelson said.