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Education officials predict more district consolidation

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

MILLERSBURG - State and school leaders say there is a new wave of school district consolidation that could alter the landscape of education in Iowa.

The consolidation is happening in school districts that are facing budget crunches because of shrinking enrollment, skyrocketing expenses and troubles cutting back. And the cash-strapped schools aren't getting the same type of help they used to from the state.

"They're in a real balancing act," said Judy Jeffrey, director of the Iowa Department of Education. "I think there's going to be another wave of consolidation."

Just how many Iowa school districts will consolidate depends on whether some can dig themselves out of a financial hole.

State officials say enrollment has dropped in two-thirds of Iowa's 362 school districts. Those districts lose more than $5,000 in state aid for each student who leaves.

District leaders were warned last spring that 60 school districts were on track to operate in the red in 2008 and 2009.

"I see right now more districts in potential financial difficulty than I've seen in the almost nine years I've been doing this," said Larry Sigel, school finance director for the Iowa Association of School Boards. He helps train school leaders on how to manage their budgets.

Experts say Iowa's tradition of local control had enabled even the smallest school district to survive, but that's changing.

In 2004, lawmakers started to phase out a state budget guarantee that bailed out schools struggling with declining enrollment. And last year, the Legislature gave the Iowa Board of Education power to shut down school districts that run in the red for two years in a row.

The new practice has been put to use. Last spring, the board's members shut down the Russell school district, where leaders blamed financial troubles on declining enrollment and mismanagement.

Education officials say Iowa has experienced three consolidation movements since 1900, with the last round in the 1980s.

That's when the economy soured and state officials raised education standards. At that time, lawmakers offered financial incentives for districts to merge.

Some education officials are predicting a similar scenario now, but without any handouts from the state.

In Millersburg, the town's only school will be empty this time next year if voters agree to merge the Deep River-Millersburg and English Valleys school districts, which have about 600 students between them.

"I think people have accepted the inevitable," said Twila Gerard, 67, a town historian who was part of Deep River-Millersburg's first graduating class, in 1958. "There's not enough children."



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