Thursday, January 30, 2014

Rural Schools Fighting For Their Future -

Claire Powell
More than 30 rural school leaders are standing up to lawmakers on issues they say needs fixed in rural school districts.
Twenty-four schools have disappeared, consolidated or relocated since 2008. More are heading that direction in coming years.
"There's a great amount of fear, there's a great amount of tension," said Joel Davis, Coon Rapids-Bayard School Board President and co-chair of Rural Schools Advocacy of Iowa.
Rural schools all across the state, like Coon Rapids- Bayard, are facing declining enrollment and thinning budgets. They have a total of 400 pre-K-12 students, but have lost 50 students in the past three years.
"When you have declining enrollment, you have to look at cost saving measures," said Brent Jorth, Principal of the 6-12 grades.
The school district has closed an elementary and another school building to combine K-12 into one connected facility. School leaders said this was an effort to cut costs in transportation, faculty and utility costs.
Still, the enrollment is declining and programs are being hurt. The state aid funds are based off of school enrollment numbers, and when the numbers are decreasing, funds disappear.
"It becomes frustrating when we talk about education being number one priority in Iowa and we feel like we're being shortchanged," said Superintendent Rich Stoffers. "That impacts programs, that impacts teachers and staffing and bottom line is it may negatively impact student achievement."
They next major budget issue is transportation costs. There three rural routes can travel anywhere between 25-40 miles round trip just to get kids to school.
"Some districts are driving 10 miles total. We're driving ten miles just to get to the first place," said Davis.
If a bus needs repairs, that expense is covered by general funds which are supposed to be used for educational purposes. Another option is consolidation, but it doesn't make any sense for Coon Rapids-Bayard because they're twenty minutes away from the closest district.
"We have students who travel an hour to get to school, so when you look at consolidating, we're really geographically isolated," said Jorth.
That's just one school out of the hundreds that Rural School Advocacy of Iowa group hopes to bring attention to. They say that staying silent isn't an option anymore and that legislators need to hear their concerns.
"In the past we've been trying to sing our own praises and tell our own story, but now since we've organized, we have a collective voice," said Jorth.
"I think we've been too quiet for too long. We need to start speaking out on behalf of our kids because that's what it about. It's about our kids, about learning and out here in rural Iowa, we want fair, quality, equitable education," said Davis.
Davis believes the RSAI could see 50 school districts join within the next month and hopes to grow to over 100 in the future. They're planning on hiring a lobbyist to represent them in front of legislatures and will continue to work with local representatives to push the issue. 

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