The state currently prohibits schools from spending above a rate authorized annually by lawmakers. And because much of Iowa school budgets are based on per-pupil costs, schools with declining enrollments often face the toughest financial challenges.Going forward, rural areas are going to face more consolidation decisions. Demographics, limited job markets and continued Republican tax cuts and spending cuts are going to force small schools to merge and shutter schools. Rural areas have long had their way of life subsidized, but population change and political pressure will make that less tenable. This will be a familiar story throughout the Midwest.
Schools that can't stay within the budget boundary are labeled as having negative unspent balances, flagged by the state and are generally called before the School Budget Review Committee to provide a correction plan.
Last week 12 districts – all rural with certified enrollments of 850 or less — went before the committee, which includes four members appointed by the governor. Most asked for permission to forgive their spending overages and to approve plans to prevent overspending in future years.
"I'd like to say it's a pleasure to be here but it's probably not," Orient-Macksburg Superintendent Clark Wicks told the committee's members.
Wicks later detailed the school's fiscal remedies, which include the already closed daycare service that was once considered critical to the community but ultimately caused the district to lose more than $90,000. He believes the change the district has made will rectify the problem in future years.
"What I want to try to assure you is we're on the road to financial success," Wicks said.
Iowa since 1950 has lost 4,314 school districts. Roughly 60 percent of the remaining 338 districts in the state are experiencing declining student enrollment.
Critics like Schaller-Crestland Superintendent Dave Kwikkel argue that inequities in Iowa's school finance laws have stacked the deck against rural districts.
A prime example is transportation. Rural schools, by their nature, have far more transportation costs because they generally have larger areas to cover. Kwikkel's district, for example, annually spends about $800 per student on transportation, which he notes is about $500 more than the state average. That extra transportation cost cuts deeply into rural district budgets, he said.
"Too much money in our districts is going to get the kids in a location to educate them," Kwikkel said. "That's the biggest problem we have. It's a huge inequity."
The Des Moines Register last summer launched a yearlong project that documents the systemic loss of Iowa's schools. One of the project's focuses is Corwith-Wesley, a northern Iowa district that residents voted to close at the end of the current school year due to student enrollment declines and unrelenting financial strain.
Sunday, January 25, 2015
Rural Schools in Iowa Under Pressure to Consolidate
Des Moines Register: