Sharing of School Functions Eases Consolidation in Iowa

By Mark Walsh — May 02, 1990 3 min read

A growing number of Iowa school districts are easing their communities into the emotionally charged process of consolidation by first sharing superintendents or combining grades, a study by the state education department has found.

One hundred of the state’s 431 districts are sharing a superintendent this school year, compared with only 10 in 1985-86, according to the study. In addition, while only 10 districts shared grades four years ago, 84 are doing so now.

These arrangements frequently lead to total reorganization--usually a merger--of the districts involved, the report indicates.

Guy Ghan, a consultant to the education department and the study’s author, said the major cause of the increase in reorganization activity has been a population shift from small towns to cities, which has drained rural school enrollments.

Other factors have had an impact, the report found, including state tax breaks and other financial incentives for reorganization and new minimum standards that have forced some districts to upgrade their curricula.

“The real impetus for restructuring has been the desire for improved educational programs, particularly at the high-school and junior-high/-school levels,” the report suggested.

But the report also revealed how community residents sometimes feel that the benefits to be gained from sharing functions or merging are outweighed by the emotional costs of severing their ties to their traditional districts.

“The activities are often at the raw emotional level and are fraught with threats and vandalism,” the report noted. School-board members who favor function sharing have had their cars scratched, it found, while farmers have complained of being ordered by their landlords either to join the opposition to reorganization or to move.

Mr. Ghan was hesitant to cite specific examples of such hostility.

“There is a range from those reorganizations that go together very smoothly and those that go together with a great deal of difficulty, where a certain segment of the population may engage in these malicious activities,” he said.

This June, voters in the small Iowa towns of Monroe and Prairie City will decide whether to complete the process of consolidating their districts.

Already, the districts share a superintendent and split grades between their schools.

James Botts, the superintendent for both Monroe and Prairie City, believes the merger plan will pass this year. A similar proposal last year was approved by voters in Monroe but narrowly rejected in Prairie City.

“The longer we have been together, the more positive things we see in our strong combined academic and extracurricular programs,” said Mr. Botts.

But the superintendent concedes that the idea of consolidation evokes deep feelings. “There are always a few who can remember what it was like to have their own schools in town,” he added. “What we have heard from people opposed to this is, ‘We don’t want to lose our traditions. We don’t want to lose our individual identity.”’

The Iowa report reveals a dramatic expansion of function-sharing between districts within the past few years.

The Jefferson and Scranton districts, for example, are extending their shared-grade agreement for another three years. School officials are doing so “with the understanding that it will probably evolve into a reorganiztion,” said Robert Schmidt, the superintendent for both districts.

Marvin Judkins, superintendent of the Coon Rapids-Bayard combined school district, recalls that there was “heated oppostion” to merging the two districts three years ago, especially in Bayard.

“They were very concerned about not having a building in Bayard,” he said. But under the merger, the 4th and 5th grades were assigned to the town, as well as the middle school that was created.

“Now there are more students in Bayard than there were before reorganization,” Mr. Judkins observed.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1990 edition of Education Week as Sharing of School Functions Eases Consolidation in Iowa