DES MOINES, Iowa — In danger of losing accreditation and being dissolved, two small school districts in Iowa’s southwest corner are expected to close three of their five schools next year to keep their programs operating.
The Des Moines Register reports the Iowa Board of Education voted Thursday to grant the Hamburg and Farragut school districts conditional accreditation for next school year. But as part of the agreement, local officials must close schools and address overspending and insufficient programs that do not meet the state’s minimum requirements.
The issue — faced by small districts with declining enrollment — can become a chicken-and-egg dilemma between keeping school programming and balancing a budget.
Complicating matters was a failed vote to consolidate the two districts in December. It passed in Farragut, which borders Missouri, but failed by seven votes in Hamburg, which abuts Missouri and Nebraska. Together, they have about 260 students.
“We’re somewhat like a canary in a coal mine for other schools, for small schools,” said Farragut’s Superintendent Tom Hinrichs.
On Thursday, state officials congratulated school leaders on the turn around, but warned about the need for long-term sustainability of operations. District leaders, in turn, said they’d seek additional partnerships with surrounding districts, and may eventually revisit a consolidation vote.
Closing schools will create operating efficiencies and save money, but Dave Mincer, Hamburg’s school board president, said it’s been a “tough thing to give up.”
“Back in 1924, the citizens of Hamburg built too good of a school. Our middle school now is a high school,” he said. “It’s a building that’s part of the community.”
As part of the agreement, which local school boards must approve, Hamburg and Farragut will dive deeper into whole-grade sharing. Currently, each community operates a K-4 elementary school, with fifth grade and middle school in Hamburg and high school in Farragut. Next year all students in grades K-6 will be in Hamburg and grades 7-12 in Farragut.
“We all understand there’s a desire on the part of the communities to keep their schools,” said Amy Williamson, the education department’s chief of the bureau of school improvement. “These conversations are really tough on communities, and we understand that, but that doesn’t mean that we can turn away from paying attention to the sustainability.”
Prompting the intensive department review was overspending by Farragut of $800,000 over three years, compared to a $2 million yearly budget.
“I think people made a decision that, if they were going to err, they were going to err on the side of providing programming for kids,” Hinrichs said.
Previously, the state’s School Budget Review Committee approved additional spending authority for both Farragut and Hamburg, which had also overspent. The additional authority allows school districts to spend down cash or levy taxes to bring themselves into a positive position.
The state sets per-student spending limits for districts, which are funded through a mix of property taxes and state dollars. At times, districts like Farragut find themselves with cash on hand — but with declining enrollment, not the authority to spend it.
“It gets them back in the black, but in Farragut’s case, they have been overspending for three years,” said Jeff Berger, the education department’s deputy director of school finance and support services. “Unless they actually reduce what they’re funding to get in line with the budget, they’re going to be right back in the negative again.”