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POCAHONTAS, Iowa -- A consultant's report indicates building one high school to serve four Northwest Iowa school districts may be feasible.

But any sharing is five to 10 years away, according to superintendents involved.

A new shared high school would probably be located about five miles west of Pocahontas along Iowa Highway 3, near the geographic and population center of four districts: Albert City-Truesdale, Laurens-Marathon, Newell-Fonda and the Pocahontas Area schools.

The proposed district, which would encompass 696 square miles, would become the largest in the state. The Western Dubuque district is currently the largest at 555 square miles.

Pomeroy-Palmer was part of the original concept. But the district backed out of the study to investigate other possibilities on its own before the 60-page, $5,600 study was begun by retired school administrator Guy Ghan of Ghan Consultants of Bondurant, Iowa.

Ghan has worked on more than 300 such reports, including those he authored while working for the Iowa Department of Education.

Leaders see agreement

Pocahontas Superintendent Joe Kramer termed Ghan's report "very thorough. He left no stone unturned, providing much more information than would be needed to make a good decision." The Pocahontas Area board passed a resolution in support of the proposal at Monday's meeting.

Laurens-Marathon's part-time superintendent, Monte Montgomery, who is full-time superintendent for the Clay Central-Everly district, says the L-M board is "serious enough to look at and consider the report, but will probably not be ready" for two or three more years.

Montgomery's term as superintendent ends in June. The district is interviewing candidates for the position.

Ron Day, superintendent at Newell-Fonda, is also leaving his office, retiring in June. Current high school principal, Jeff Dicks, is expected to take the district reins July 1.

Day says he's not too concerned that taxpayers will react negatively, as comments he hears in his communities are "very supportive. They're glad we're being proactive."

The superintendent explains if the report is followed, it would take a minimum of five years to open the doors of a new school, after local committees assessed the situation, approved bond issues and built the center.

Dr. Marlin Lode, who heads the Albert City-Truesdale district, agrees with Day, noting he sees "at least a three-year lead time (for planning and a bond election), and 20 months of construction," based on his experience building a new middle school in Cherokee where he was superintendent before he retired.

Lode has another factor to consider: AC-T is in the first year of a 10-year whole grade sharing agreement with Sioux Central, based in nearby Sioux Rapids.

"I would expect Albert City to live up to that agreement," he says.

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Reaching mandates

The combined enrollment of the four districts for the current budget year is 1,755 students. Each district currently surpasses state mandates for course offerings, required personnel and committee work.

But an anticipated decline in enrollment could change that. That decline can be measured in part by a net loss of 17 students, with May graduates exceeding the incoming kindergarten class by that number in Newell-Fonda alone.

Past vs. future

If the four districts don't approve the plan, they must consider alternatives, notes Kramer of Pocahontas. As explained in the study, other whole-grade sharing proposals are a possibility, along with district dissolutions and mergers and regional or dual-campus high schools, and regional academies.

In what Ghan terms one of the three eras of consolidation beginning in 1985, a similar sharing agreement was proposed among Laurens-Marathon, Sioux Central and Albert City-Truesdale. "But that plan never had a chance," former AC-T Superintendent Bill Hullinger said. "It was just discussed at a meeting" of board members from all the schools involved.

"It appears that shrinking enrollment will continue in many parts of the state, that districts will join through the old and some new merging systems, and that some of the consolidations will be very difficult," Ghan's report concludes.

The study notes there were about 12,000 mostly one-room schools in the state in 1900. Now there are 365 districts, with 340 high schools in the state. Today Ghan says it is not as important to consider "bigger is better or smaller is better," but "how small is too small?"

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