Another round of Iowa school district consolidation is likely in the years ahead due to dwindling rural populations and the expiration of a state provision that allows districts with declining enrollment to recoup some budget losses, state educators say.
Fourteen districts will merge to become seven in July. Residents in the Clearfield school system, which educated 27 southern Iowa children this year, voted to dissolve their district effective July 1.
As a result, Iowa will start the 2014-15 academic year with 338 school districts. The state had 367 districts a decade ago. In 1990, there were 430.
Merging two or more neighboring school districts brings both benefits and challenges. Larger districts can offer more courses and extracurricular activities. But consolidation also can result in long bus rides for students, lost jobs at shuttered schools and weakened hometown ties.
Education officials predict Iowa will see an uptick in consolidations in coming years, reigniting conversations about how to best serve rural students in a state that's seen significant urban migration in the past decade.
Four of Iowa's five largest cities grew from 2000 to 2010, U.S. Census data show. During the same period, only a third of the state's 99 counties increased in population.
"The population is migrating to the cities — they are going to Des Moines or Council Bluffs, wherever they can get jobs," said Thomas Ward, schools superintendent of IKM-Manning, a western Iowa district formed in 2011 through a consolidation. "Change is inevitable for rural schools because of their diminishing populations."
But bigger is not always better, experts caution.
Studies in Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Montana, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia have shown that attending a small school can benefit students living in poverty.
"If you are a student coming from a poor household, you are more likely to do better academically in a small school environment than in a large school environment," said Kai Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities, housed at Penn State University. "And with increased broadband connectivity and online classes, there's less and less of a case these days that only larger schools can offer a broad array of academic programming."
Budget difficulties add to pressures
Setting aside academic arguments, budget troubles play a role. In Iowa, it is illegal for a school district to operate in the red.
State officials sent notices to roughly 65 districts last year that were in danger of deficit spending. Twelve of those districts — all in rural areas — recorded negative balances in the 2013 fiscal year.
"When you're losing students, you're losing money; and coupled with that, all costs continue to rise," said Jeff Berger, an Iowa Department of Education deputy director. "…We're expecting to see more districts having trouble getting back in the black."
Districts receive state money on a per-pupil basis. More than half of all Iowa districts reported a decrease in student enrollment last fall.
Financial incentives from the state encourage small districts to share resources. Extra money is given to school systems that enter whole-grade sharing agreements, a partnership where students from two or more districts attend all or most of their classes together.
Districts that share superintendents or other key personnel are also eligible for additional state money, helping small districts stay afloat.
A fiscal tool called the budget guarantee expired this year, putting further pressure on rural schools.
Passed by state lawmakers in 2001, the budget guarantee allowed some districts to use local property tax revenue to boost their spending authority despite declining enrollment.
"For districts that were using the budget guarantee, they don't have a buffer anymore," Berger said. "When they lose kids, they aren't getting any money flowing back to them to offset that loss."
500-plus students viewed as a benefit
Data from a 2010 report by the Iowa Policy Research Organization suggests that districts operate best with at least 500 students.
The group, comprising honors students at the University of Iowa, prepares original research reports at the request of Iowa's lawmakers and public officials.
Districts with 500 or more students benefit from operational cost-savings, increased course offerings and an increase in property values, the report said.
The East Mills district, formed in 2011 when the Malvern and Nishna Valley districts merged, educated 494 students in preschool through 12th grade this year.
The western Iowa districts had participated in whole-grade sharing for four years before the reorganization.
"It was needed; without it we would have lost teachers and lost class options simply because we didn't have the finances to support it," said Mary Bolton, a former Nishna Valley parent and outgoing president of the East Mills booster club.
Students benefited academically and socially from a similar consolidation near the Iowa-Minnesota border, said Marshall Klingenberg, 2014 senior class president of the recently formed North Union High School.
The North Union district, comprising the former Armstrong-Ringsted and Sentral school systems, will officially be recognized by the state beginning July 1.
High school students from both districts have used the new name for the past two years, joining forces academically and athletically to compete as North Union Warriors.
Klingenberg started his high school career as an Armstrong-Ringsted student and saw his class nearly double in size with the merger, growing to 53 students. He took several dual enrollment classes during his junior and senior years at North Union. The courses allow students to earn concurrent high school and college credit.
"The merger gave each school a different perspective about how classes are supposed to go," said Klingenberg, who will attend Iowa State University this fall to study elementary education.
"We were used to the same old Armstrong-Ringsted way, and they were used to their way. When we combined, you sort of got the best of both worlds."
Mergers can bring busing headaches
But that's not to say the transition, which requires voter approval, is easy.
Beyond the inevitable emotions of previous sports rivalries, newly formed districts often have to make staff cuts and negotiate new teacher contracts.
In some cases, mergers aimed at increasing enrollment have created transportation challenges.
When Clarion-Goldfield and Dows merge this summer, the resulting district will educate around 950 northern Iowa students and cover roughly 350 square miles.
Under state code, elementary students can't spend more than 60 minutes traveling to or from class on a school bus. For high school students, travel time can't exceed 75 minutes.
Despite those hurdles, Superintendent Robert Olson remains a strong supporter of rural education. Olson led both Clarion-Goldfield and Dows this year. He will oversee the reorganized district following the July 1 merger.
"Students in rural schools have the opportunity to do it all. We don't have kids that specialize in just one sport or one activity," Olson said. "And we know that for our kids who are involved, there's a positive relationship between that involvement and their grade point averages."
No definition for 'too small'
State officials don't have a threshold for how small is too small, but Iowa code requires newly formed districts to enroll at least 300 students.
More than 123,300 young Iowans — roughly a quarter of the state's student population — are enrolled in districts that serve fewer than 1,000 pupils, according to the most recent data available.
Roughly 9,500 of those students attend classes in districts with fewer than 300 children.