The boards of directors for Lakeland AEA 3 and Arrowhead AEA 5 voted unanimously to merge this week. Meeting in Pocahontas Monday night, the two boards voted to formally study potential reorganization into one AEA effective July 1, 2003.
Both boards also agreed to begin negotiations to share the services of chief administrator Bill Garner and business manager Steve Beeghley beginning July 1, 2002. Lakeland administrator Al Wood and business manager Donna Johnson plan to retire.
The decision to share the administrators and to pursue a merger between the two AEAs is a first for the state of Iowa. A feasibility study was completed this month, which recommended the two agencies unite.
Susan Moore, Storm Lake, represents Albert City-Truesdale, Alta and Storm Lake on the AEA 5 board. She said there are several reasons behind the move to merge.
"The legislature and Department of Education have encouraged AEAs to merge, given the declining numbers of kids in Iowa and trying to look for ways to provide better services to those kids," Moore said, adding that the retirement of the Lakeland administrator and business manager is another factor. "It seemed a logical time to look at (merging)."
Moore said the feasibility study also showed a merger between Lakeland and Arrowhead would be best to continue the level of service.
"The study came back very clear that 5 and 3 would be a good match," she said.
Connie Johnson, Arrowhead spokesperson, said the AEAs have remained unchanged since they were formed in 1975. However, both AEA 3 and 5 have seen the number of students served drop by approximately 31 percent. That prompted the state legislature and Department of Education to encourage voluntary annexation.
"That based on declining enrollment," Johnson said. "It has nothing to do with quality of service. We're just not serving the same number of kids we were 27 years ago when we were created."
"It's inevitable and makes sense, the sooner we can start implementing this and moving forward the better off everyone will be," Moore said.
In September the boards of the two AEAs agreed to do a feasibility study to study the options of each AEA. That study was released earlier this month with a recommendation that the AEAs were best suited to merge.
On Monday, the two boards met and unanimously voted to proceed with merger plans. The timeline established is to develop a reorganization plan over the summer for approval by the state board of education by the fall. If approved the merger would become effective July 1, 2003.
"I think this timeline allows some good planning time. That allows the two AEAs to work out a lot of the details of the merger," Moore said. "The ultimate goal is to serve kids the best way we can and provide the same quality service as they've been getting."
Dr. Susan Leddick will lead reorganization study. She is a restructuring specialist, Johnson said, and will work with the AEA boards, administrators, staff and customers.
The group will look at the current structure, create an idealized design for a combined AEA, and then ways to implement the project. That will include how services are delivered and where offices will be.
"We'll look at how each AEA is currently doing things, and come up with an ideal structure," Johnson said. "We'll compare what we do with the ideal structure and how to go from where we currently are to where we need to be."
From meetings Arrowhead has already had with school officials, a major concern is maintaining the quality of programs and services delivered by the AEAs. Arrowhead administrator Bill Garner has said with declining enrollment and budget cuts, the AEAs will not be able to provide the same level of services as they do now.
Guy Ghan of Ghan Consulting, which did the feasibility study, said in an October meeting that the AEAs need to do something about declining enrollment. If AEAs do not voluntarily examine reorganization, the legislature and Department of Education planned on forcing mergers by 2005.
Both Lakeland and Arrowhead saw an approximately 31 percent drop in student enrollment since 1975. In 27 years, there was a decline of about 10,000 students in Arrowhead and a decline of about 5,500 students in Lakeland.
Also, both AEAs saw an approximately 36 percent decline in the number of school districts since 1975. In 1975, there were 47 districts in AEA 5, down to 31 in 2001. In 1975, AEA 3 had 28 school districts, down to 18 in 2001.
The feasibility study said the AEAs will operate central offices, but will rely on satellite centers to provide more local delivery of services and programs.
Other possible mergers were also examined between AEAs 3 and 5 and other neighboring AEAs. The study listed the other possible consolidations, but none of them were feasible because of declining population and geographic concerns. The only other possible merger would be between Arrowhead and AEA 12 to the west, the study said.
"If AEAs 3 and 5 do not merge at this time, it would not be likely that AEA 5 would pursue a merger with AEA 12," the study said.
The study said AEA 5's enrollment is low enough for the Department of Education to list it as a merger candidate, but the study stated the enrollment is not as low as in AEA 3.
"AEA 5 is now in the position of a business entity that has the chance to shore up its declining volume of business through a merger with AEA 3," the study said.
In legislation passed during the 2000 session, the state legislature required the Department of Education to conduct a study on the AEA system. The legislature also passed AEA-sponsored legislation last spring allowing voluntary mergers and restructuring by AEAs.