COLLEGE SPRINGS — Rural school districts have had to learn to share to survive.
Gregg Cruickshank serves as superintendent for the South Page and Sidney school districts in Southwest Iowa.
“Half of the Corner Conference (consisting of small schools in Page, Fremont, Mills and Montgomery counties) that was there when I started in 2004 doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “We’ve lost 1,300 kids in the conference due to declining enrollment.
“Since state funding is tied to the number of K-12 students, it’s been a challenge for all of us.”
The loss of enrollment and funding has forced rural schools like South Page to be more creative.
Cruickshank says the district has sharing agreements with nine other school districts, including one in Missouri.
Those agreements range from personnel to class offerings.
“What can small schools do to survive and thrive?” he says. “You have to do a lot of sharing.”
Cruickshank says South Page is typical of many rural school districts. Formed in 1960 as a consolidated district with students from College Springs, Braddyville, Coin, Blanchard and Shambaugh, it boasted 640 students 55 years ago.
Today, that number has fallen to a K-12 enrollment of 125 students.
COMMUNICATION among the schools in the Corner Conference has allowed those districts to continue offering a quality education to students.
“As superintendents and principals, we communicate often and have adopted a common calendar,” Cruickshank says.
“There is definitely a spirit of cooperation among the districts. We want to move teachers around as much as possible, and move students around as little as possible.”
Falling enrollment is common around Iowa, says Jeff Berger, deputy director with the Iowa Department of Education. He says 60 percent of Iowa school districts are seeing a decline in students.
“There is a certain amount of struggling,” Berger says.
“State funding is mostly based on certified enrollment, and when you factor in things like open enrollment and parents sending kids to school where they work, some districts are struggling.”
He says districts must continue to meet the state’s minimum requirements for accreditation. Most look at sharing agreements that allow them to keep their accreditation without hiring additional teachers.
“Eighty percent of a school’s budget is usually tied to its staff, so some may eliminate staff when funding shrinks,” Berger says.
“That sometimes starts a trickle-down effect, and then a school can get into trouble for not meeting the requirements.”
Many small districts enter into staff or activity sharing agreements with neighboring districts, he says.
Some could involve whole grade sharing. The most common arrangement is for two districts or more to share a high school, but maintain their elementary schools and school boards.
THE REAL trouble, he says, comes when a school goes into the red financially.
“There are 13 districts in the state with a negative balance this year,” Berger says. “When that happens, we get involved and ask them to come up with a working plan to get back into the black.
“Those districts are faced with some real challenges, and most have to make severe cuts to get back on good financial footing.”
In the 1950s, Iowa had more than 4,800 school districts. That number is down to 338 today, says Margaret Buckton, a professional advocate for the Rural School Advocates of Iowa (RSAI), an organization formed less than two years ago.
“They are all struggling to stretch the dollar and meet the minimum requirements from the state, along with what their communities expect students to be exposed to when it comes to education,” she says.
State funding has been cut in recent years due to declining enrollment in rural schools. That has forced those schools, Buckton says, to become creative.
“They are sharing with schools, community colleges and even cities and counties when it comes to things like mowing or clearing snow,” she says. “They are always looking for someone to share with to help their district survive.”
Buckton says small districts all share a sense of community, and residents within those districts are generally willing to do all they can to keep their schools.
“We probably have 220 to 230 districts that I would consider rural,” she says.
“The people there like the fact that the students can be more involved and participate in a lot of things.
“They don’t want those kids to go to a bigger school and perhaps get lost in the shuffle.”
BUCKTON SAYS the RFAI is working to raise awareness in the legislature of the plight of many rural schools.
“It used to be that you associated poverty with urban schools, but today, a lot of kids in Southern Iowa are getting free and reduced lunches,” she says.
“We have more students who do not speak English. Things have changed, and we have to be consistent in how we deal with our schools.”
Cruickshank says having the support of the community allows South Page to continue to survive and thrive.
“We have 23 sharing agreements, and our board and the people in the district accept the fact that it’s no longer about Rebel pride, it’s about what we have to do to educate our kids with the resources we have,” he says.
“We accept the fact that we no longer have several programs we once had. We focus on our kids and making sure they get the best possible education.”