Alta-Aurelia leading the way on school district mergers in Iowa

Friday, December 7, 2018
The Alta-Aurelia School Board was invited to tell their story of a successful district merge at this year’s Iowa Association of School Boards conference. The frame the board is holding references the one percent state sales tax that schools say has been instrumental in helping them stay afloat with their budgets as they battle various funding pressures. The penny sales tax will expire in 2020, with no solid intentions shown in the Iowa legislature to renew it. Front, from left to right: Katie Meyer, Nicky Sleezer, Gigi Nelson. Back: Jen Kaskey, Brad Rohwer, Supt. Lynn Evans / Photo by Elijah Decious

On a horizon of numerous and often contentious school mergers, Alta-Aurelia Community School District is leading the way on how to do it well.

The differences after 97 percent of Alta and 77 percent of Aurelia voted to merge districts last fall have been functionally negligible to the users, students and parents, Superintendent Lynn Evans said. But some districts have clashed less gracefully.

Alta and Aurelia themselves at one point struggled with the endeavor. Their attempt to share athletics and classes in the 1990s was unsuccessful at first.

Whole-grade and athletics sharing started in 2011 with a new agreement, making the official merging transition this year more behind-the-scenes than what students and parents experience. Reorganization “officially” took effect July 1, at which point the Iowa Association of School Boards took note.

“It looks and functions almost identical to before,” said Evans. Other districts looking at Alta-Aurelia as an example saw a smooth transition without always understanding the work and detailed planning that was put in to make it happen.

But what makes it remarkable is more that the experience was, overall, a positive one for both towns—a contrast to some other districts that are merging to have a five or six letter acronym.

“We learned from others that it’s important to give back,” Evans said—so they are. Their interactive presentation at the Iowa Association of School Boards in November, hailed as a success, showed other districts what they learned to do well and what could have gone better, pointing them to the right resources for success.

The keys to their success—focusing on the students, communication with concerned parties and healthy teamwork—all were critical in developing public support.

Evans said Alta-Aurelia first relied on the Department of Education for advice, but found a model with a couple districts that had gone through it before, particularly Maple Valley - Anthon Oto.

“We just told our story,” Evans said.

It’s a chapter in Iowa’s public school history that is being written before us, as many rural schools facing depopulation and flat funding continue to be put under pressure to consolidate for financial health.

“A lot of a small town’s identity is tied to public school district,” Evans said. “Any time there’s a sharing or reorganization, that does play with the culture of a community. That’s why we feel it’s important to have a presence in most communities as best as we can.”

He said that when districts come together, they both lose something.

“The day after you decide to reorganize, you’ve both lost something—it’s no longer the same entity,” Evans said. Focusing on what’s best for students was what kept Alta-Aurelia grounded.

The partial loss of an identity, in addition to what the schools bring to the town, can be more than what some towns can handle. But A-A has made it work.

Though Aurelia lost its high school and some of their evening events, the middle school there has brought more traffic through.

“There’s a little tangible loss,” Evans said, but if you look at things that popped up after grade-sharing began, he says it’s been a positive for both towns.

“I don’t think anyone was harmed. I think there was financial gain,” he continued.

Evans credits the board’s financially literate members and their communication to constituents for the success of the transition over several years, especially recently.

“School finances are a tricky thing. Not all boards and superintendents understand how it works and how to leverage it,” the superintendent said.

That ability is critical for the district’s health in a time where rural schools are under significant pressure to stay afloat with virtually flat budget increases and flat or declining enrollment.