DES MOINES — State education officials are seeing an uptick in the requests from K-12 school districts, particularly in rural areas, seeking to study the feasibility of sharing resources or merging with neighboring districts.
“The numbers are up,” said Kevin Fangman, acting director of the state Department of Education.
Del Hoover, deputy administrator of the state department’s division of PK-12 education, said his agency has gone from one request for a reorganization feasibility study per year to up to a dozen from districts struggling with financial pressures, declining enrollment and the continued phase out of the state’s school budget guarantee.
“When you consider the number of small school districts, that’s quite an increase,” he said.
Iowa currently has 359 school districts and the number will be lower than 356 for the 2011-12 school year because six districts in northern Iowa voted this month to merge into three districts effective July 1 and several more are contemplating similar action, Fangman said.
“Student enrollment has been declining steadily since the 1970s. We’ve never really bottomed out on that. Every year we have fewer school-aged kids attending our public schools and it doesn’t look like it’s going to bottom out yet,” Hoover said. “We have increasing enrollment in our suburban districts. But our urban and rural districts are losing enrollment. Those are the trends.”
Iowa experienced waves of school consolidations in the past that saw the number of public districts drop from 4,652 in the 1950-51 school year to 4,142 five years later. By the 1960-61 school year, the number had plunged to 1,575 and then to 1,056 five years later and to 453 by the 1970-71 school year.
“I think we’re in the next wave,” Hoover said. “We have more and more districts that are exploring whole-grade sharing. Whole-grade sharing is a prelude to reorganization normally, although we do have some sharing agreements that have been out there for 20 years.”
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Dan Smith, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa, said shrinking enrollments are accelerating talks on how best to utilize scarce resources among school districts, particularly in rural Iowa, given that state aid to K-12 schools is formula based by per pupil allocations. He expected the results will be a reduction in the number of school districts.
“That is what’s continuing to happen — looking for ways to share and even combine districts,” Smith said.
“I don’t have numbers but I think there certainly have been accelerated discussions,” he added. “Those are very, very difficult decisions. But I think those discussions are taking place.”