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Dept. of Education study confirms AEA necessity, backs up merger talk

Thursday, September 20, 2001

A new study released by the Iowa Department of Education (DE), backs up the ongoing discussions of a possible merger within the Area Education Associations.

Ron Dickinson, chair of AEA Chief Administrators, said, "The study shows that Iowa's Area Education Agency (AEA) system is 'successful, efficient, effective and needed." He also noted the report shows AEA services receive a high approval rating from teachers and administrators statewide. The study recommends the agencies consider mergers to ensure continued cost efficiency and equity.

Dickinson notes, "AEAs requested a change in legislation last year that allows voluntary restructuring. We are willing to consider voluntary reorganization, and our decisions to merge or share services will be based on what's best for the students." The local Arrowhead Area Education Agency 5, based in Fort Dodge, is already in discussion with AEA 3 toward a potential reorganization and possible eventual merger.

The discussion has raised some concern among local school leaders for the future of the AEA services they depend on.

"AEAs were established to provide equitable and efficient services to all students, and this study shows that AEAs have successfully met that goal. With budget concerns statewide, the AEAs recognized this is a good time to reevaluate how their services are provided in the most efficient manner," said DE Director, Ted Stillwill.

In legislation passed during the 2000 session, the state legislature required the DE to conduct a study and to deliver it to the AEA system boards of directors. The legislature also passed AEA-sponsored legislation this spring allowing voluntary mergers and restructuring by AEAs. The DE report provides information for the AEAs to use in considering how they may continue to best serve educators, families and children statewide.

"We are encouraged by the DE study," says Julie Wilken, chairperson of the AEA governing boards and board member of Green Valley AEA in southwest Iowa. "The report confirms the value and success of the AEA system. For almost 30 years AEAs have been working to make a good system even better. We've consistently provided the most efficient and effective services possible to Iowa's children."

As part of its study, the Department of Education conducted a satisfaction survey among educators across the state. According to the survey, the state's Area Education Agency system is achieving high customer satisfaction among school districts. The DE report states, "An overwhelming 90 percent [of educators] responded that instructional media (96.9 percent), school technology (94.6 percent) and professional development services (93.1 percent) were of high quality."

Educators indicated strong agreement about AEAs meeting their professional needs, responding to student learning needs, providing leadership to meet emerging educational needs, and timely delivery of services to meet school districts' needs. The report shows nearly three-fourths of the educators responding to this survey (73.9 percent) said the AEA services they receive help them to improve their teaching.

Superintendents statewide were asked, "What changes, if any, would you suggest for AEAs to deliver services more effectively?" The report states, 77 percent of the superintendents indicated, "the agencies were doing a good job and there were no recommendations for changes."

"This report shows that the model of collaborative, regional governmental services works and works well," says Ron Dickinson, chair of AEA Chief Administrators. "The 15 AEAs evolved out of the joint county superintendent's offices which were scattered around the state. It has become a cohesive and effective system for providing critical services to every one of the state's local school districts."

The results of the Department of Education study mirrors findings of a comprehensive 1998 study conducted by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL) which found the current AEA structure to be "one of the soundest of any of the other 24 statewide networks of educational service agency-type organizations presently operating in the nation."

The NCREL report also found high levels of satisfaction and effectiveness. It noted that the AEAs are an increasingly recognized vital component of the state's educational infrastructure and that AEA staff members represent a critical mass of knowledge and experience that would be difficult to replace. The NCREL study concluded, "the term 'indispensable' may not be too ambitious for describing their role," and support for the AEA system seems to be "widespread, deep and growing."

The DE report recommended that AEAs two, three, four, five, six, seven, 14, 15, and 16 consider voluntary consolidation in whole or in part with other AEAs. Merger recommendations were based on such factors as present and future enrollments and number of schools.

"The AEAs will review the report and then begin local discussions and planning," Stillwell said.

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