THE PILOT EDITORIAL - Are small schools really shortchanged?

Sunday, November 18, 2001

It is true enough that rural school districts are hurting.

Many don't have the tax base to provide for growing teacher salaries, the full slate of course offerings now needed, and the emerging technology - not to mention the cost of keeping up the aging buildings as pupil numbers decline.

They would like to see a state sales tax increase, geared to move some of the money from retail sales in bigger towns into the little ones that don't have the advantage of strong shopping districts. Some, it seem, may be willing to sue to get it.

You might think it sounds like they've been treated unfairly.

Actually, in recent years, the state has tried many things to help keep the small districts competitive, from "phantom payments" to mask the enrollment losses to a $300 million program to revamp teacher compensation. State taxpayers have not been stingy with school funding in terms of its budget share.

Sooner or later, however, lawmakers may no longer be able to ignore the real root question. Does Iowa really need 371 separate school districts?

It would probably be political suicide for most members of the Iowa legislature to suggest that there is a point where a district is too small, with too little hope for enrollment growth, and too few economic tools to make it a good investment for perpetual state taxpayer investment.

There was a time when Buena Vista County had an opportunity to evolve into just a pair of considerable school systems - a north campus near Sioux Rapids and the south one based in Storm Lake. Perhaps a third at Alta-Aurelia. That was a little extreme - we don't have any public districts in that smallest category the state looks at, 250 and under students. For now, all of our local schools are viable; but the same cannot be said for all statewide.

Some years ago, the state stopped pushing incentives and assistance to help the small districts consolidate. Officials who didn't want a voter backlash found programs to help them get by.

The result? Hardly a shortchanging. The smallest districts in the state average more total spending per pupil than any other size district, even considerably more than those challenging inner city metro districts.

The most efficient size class, going by Iowa Dept. of Education figures, is the mid-size districts, the Storm Lakes of the world. For districts of 600-2,500, cost of education per student is under $5,500 per year on average. For the smallest districts under 250 kids, cost is over $6,400 per student, and for the largest metros, the cost is nearly $6,000.

The model, then, seems to be in the middle.

Iowa spends more on public education every year; the goal now is not how much more it can spend, but how smart it can spend it.

Remember when the ICN fiber optics network was going to be the salvation of rural schools and the great educational equalizer? It's obviously going to take more than that.

Perhaps it is time for another era of school consolidation. It was not the concept that went wrong a decade ago, but the reluctance of communities to give up the identity of having a high school in town.

If we have a crisis in finding enough school superintendents and teachers in certain specialties, reducing the number of districts may help. If not consolidation, deep sharing can reduce duplication of services and stretch resources and technology.

The bottom line must always be the quality of education to be offered, and that is what every small district will have to measure for itself as they look at the options in front of them.

Is it better to limp along to preserve community independence, or to sacrifice that to provide for more programs, computers, teachers and facilities for that community's children of the future?