Education agencies 5 and 3 look to sharing possibilities with other neighbors.
Arrowhead Area Education Agency 5 and Lakeland AEA 3 have agreed to proceed with a merger study - but in an unexpected twist of attitude, that now doesn't necessarily mean merging with each other.
The study, to be completed by January, will examine possible sharing between all of the AEAs sharing borders with Lakeland and Arrowhead, which serves all school districts in Buena Vista County.
The board of directors for the Lakeland and Arrowhead AEAs voted Wednesday night in Pocahontas to proceed with a study to outline the best merger option for each agency, said Connie Johnson of Arrowhead.
"Each of these two AEAs are going to look at our surrounding neighbors and see what would be our best match," she said. "We want to make sure we do the right thing and study all of our options."
Lakeland will look at AEA 2, 4 and 5, while Arrowhead will look at possible mergers with AEAs 2, 3, 6, 11 and 12.
Storm Lake school officials have expressed some concern for the long-term future of the services they depend on, as AEAs may grow larger and more distant in reorganization.
Iowa legislation passed during the 2000 session required the Department of Education to conduct a study on the AEAs. The legislature also passed AEA-sponsored legislation this spring allowing voluntary mergers and restructuring.
The Department of Education report has now recommended nine AEAs consider voluntary consolidation - based on such factors as present and future enrollments and number of schools.
In the merger study being started by Arrowhead and Lakeland, they will consider the cooperative between AEAs 3, 4, 5 and 12, which already share production services, news letter and report card printing.
Merger talks first started between Lakeland and Arrowhead after both the Lakeland AEA 3 administrator and business manager announced plans to retire July 2002.
"So when AEA 3 was looking at their options, one of the possibilities that came up was whether a merger would be a good idea," Johnson explained.
However, AEAs have never been able to discuss mergers since there were no laws permitting that, she said. So last year the AEA system asked the legislature for some legal means to discuss and proceed with mergers.
With that authority, AEAs 3 and 5 voted this week to proceed with a study to be completed by Jan. 7. Guy Ghan and Dr. Bob Stephens will conduct the study. Both have worked extensively with the AEAs when they were first introduced in the 1970s.
"Both were around when AEAs were created and helped design the system, so it makes sense those two gentlemen are involved in this process," Johnson said.
Already the AEAs in northwest Iowa have done a "tremendous" amount of sharing, Johnson said.
Another element of the study will be an examination of how a new combined agency would work and what the organization would look like.
"There are 15 AEAs in Iowa, each doing similar things, but they may do it differently," Johnson said. "We provide the same services, but we deliver them differently."
The possible organization structure would be important, from the name to the needs for special education services to the methods of delivery of service, she said, and the best way to combine any new challenges in those areas.
But officials with both Arrowhead and Lakeland AEAs want to assure its customers that with any type of merger there would be no reduction in services.
"In fact, we're doing this to maintain our services," Johnson said. "When everyone hears the word merger, they think business. But we're not dealing with computers and phone lines, we're dealing with human community of kids and people. Our people provide services to schools, teachers and kids, so no services could be lost. Hopefully (they'll be) a little more enhanced."
Also, Johnson said they do not anticipate any reduction in staff either.
The recent Department of Education study shows that 90 percent of people who use AEAs are satisfied with the services.
Superintendents, staff, teachers have been involved in merger discussions to this point, Johnson said, and will continue to be as the study is conducted.
Arrowhead and Lakeland are the first AEAs in the state to begin merger talks and are further along than others. All of the state's other AEAs will closely watch what happens in northwest Iowa.
Both Ron Dickinson, chair of AEA chief administrators, and Ted Stillwell, director of the Department of Education, have been supportive of merger talks, especially in light of the recent study that shows AEAs are at a 90 percent customer satisfaction level.
"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 Stillwell.