ANTON, Iowa -- As Les Goslar sees it, the consolidation of school districts happens for just one reason: bigger farms.
Bigger farms mean fewer farms. Fewer farms mean fewer farm families. "And the farmers don't have the big families they used to, either," he said as he watched his grandson hustle in a recent seventh-grade basketball game in the Anthon-Oto-Maple Valley Middle School gym.
Goslar, who lives in rural Mapleton, Iowa, has had a front row seat to the transition of rural Iowa over the past three decades. He drove a Maple Valley School District bus for 30 years, retiring just a year ago.
"I used to pick up two families every mile," he said. "Now you go four or five miles. They're just not there."
That, along with more college prep course demands, is what's driving the continuing consolidation of rural school districts. Even if just a few students are interested in calculus, for instance, the district must provide a class. As Pat Pierce, president of the Anthon-Oto School District board put it, "It costs the same if it's six students or 26." That means the per-student costs skyrocket for smaller districts.
On Feb. 1, voters in Pierce's district and those in the Maple Valley Community School District will vote separately on whether to consolidate. Each district must approve the consolidation by at least 50 percent plus one vote for it to go through. The districts are among many in the throes of the trend toward consolidation.
District numbers shrink
In 1950, Iowa had 4,652 public school districts. By 1960 there were 1,575. Fifty years later Iowa has just 359 school districts.
Of those, 82 share a superintendent with another district, and 98 do whole-grade sharing with another district. That means their students, at least in the upper grades, go to school together and all grades in both districts teach the same curriculum.
Whole-grade sharing is a necessary step toward consolidation, which means joining to become a single district, although doing it does not commit the two districts to a future marriage.
Nonetheless, the number of Iowa school districts will shrink again next year by six. Voters in 12 districts gave the OK last year to consolidate with another district. Those consolidations become final July 1.
The same could happen for the Anthon-Oto and Maple Valley school districts if a majority of voters in each district approve it in a Feb. 1 referendum. The stage appears well set for it to pass.
The two districts have done whole-grade sharing for 17 years. They also share a superintendent, Steve Oberg, and middle school and high school buildings, principals and faculties.
Students have also combined for many years to play sports: The middle school uses Anthon-Oto's Hawks mascot and the high school's mascot is Maple Valley's Eagles. Their blended school colors are black, gold and maroon.
Jane Ellis is principal of Anthon-Oto Elementary School and Anthon-Oto-Maple Valley Middle School, both in Anthon, where the two share different wings of the same building.
"Our kids don't even know we're separate," she said. When they learn the upcoming vote is for consolidation, they say, "Oh, I thought we already were," Ellis said. She said the students who come to the middle school from both districts already know each other, either from playing sports together or through their older brothers and sisters.
Each community has its own elementary school so the youngest students don't have to travel as far as their older siblings. In Mapleton, it's Maple Valley Elementary.
The two districts' school boards, five members each, have met in joint session for the past several years. If voters choose to consolidate, the districts will go into reorganization status to work out the legal matters and details. They would then become one district, Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto, on July 1, 2012. The main changes would be the creation of just one school board and one districtwide budget.
As an added incentive, the two districts could still cash in on a long-standing state incentive plan that offers $500,000 over four years to districts in the process of consolidating. Oberg said they would also enjoy property tax relief of $1 per $1,000 assessed valuation in the first year, 50 cents per $1,000 the second and 25 cents in the third year, courtesy of the state. That saves the taxpayers another $500,000, Oberg said, so it's really a $1 million incentive.
Second time a charm?
The consolidation question was first put to a referendum in 2005, but Anthon-Oto voters said no thanks, quashing the deal, while Maple Valley voters approved it. Some Anthon-Oto residents feared they would end up paying for the new high school building in Mapleton, Oberg said.
Another concern was that the larger Maple Valley district, with about 505 students, would have its say over the smaller Anthon-Oto, which has roughly 250.
This time the Maple Valley district has taken the financial issue out of the equation, Oberg said. Current Maple Valley district residents will continue paying off the building bonds on their own, even after a consolidation, Oberg said.
The only objections to consolidation he knows of have come from owners of land that is contiguous to a different school district.
Some want out
Twenty-one owners of 31 parcels of land filed petitions this fall to attach their property to another school district contiguous to their land if the voters OK the consolidation. Their cases were heard Oct. 26 by the Northwest Iowa Area Education Agency board.
Tim Grieves, the AEA's chief administrator, said the AEA granted a change of district to all but six of the 31 parcels owners wanted to take out. The six did not meet the requirements, Grieves said.
The land lost to other districts totals 774 acres, less than 1 percent of the geographically huge district, Pierce said.
All but three of the 21 properties that would be allowed to change districts would become part of the Woodbury Central district. Two would be released to River Valley and one to the West Monona School District.
That singleton was Edna Jensen. After all, she lives just 16 miles from West Monona's base in Onawa, Iowa, while the drive to Anthon-Oto-Maple Valley Middle School is 40 miles.
Jansen, 78 and widowed long ago, lives on the 238-acre farm where she grew up and works two jobs to keep it up.
"We used to have so many neighbors," she said. "There were 15 or 16 kids in the hollow. Now I'm the only one here, except for John," a neighbor. "There are no children at home anymore, and nobody around me is in the Maple Valley district."
Jansen remembers having to sometimes drive her daughter to middle school, then in Danbury, Iowa, nearly 40 miles away, the same distance the Anthon-Oto-Maple Valley Middle School in Anthon is today. The drive to West Monona in Onawa would be much shorter, adding value to her farm place, she figures, for the next family that may want to buy it.
Dale and Virginia Hayworth's farm was released by the AEA to the Woodbury Central district. Virginia Hayworth said it's just 8.5 miles to Woodbury Central in Moville but a 30-mile direct route to Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto High School. "And no school bus takes a direct route," she noted. The Hayworths, too, believe that closer schools would enhance their property value for a young family one day.
'A seamless transition'
Dale Wimmer, president of the Maple Valley school board, said he favors consolidation with Anthon-Oto. "Then we can fine tune it and make us run better," he said. He said the Maple Valley board agreed that it would pay the bond on the new high school in hopes that the consolidation will pass this time.
He said it isn't clear yet how the school board members from a consolidated district would be elected, whether at large or by various districts.
Anthon-Oto's Pierce said the main reason for consolidating is stability, starting with finances.
"Both districts would suffer if we had to split because the funding wouldn't be there from the state, especially for the high school," he said. "We couldn't offer pre-college classes."
Pierce said that some people in his district fear they would lose control of their schools, or that one of the Anthon-Oto buildings would close in the transition. But he said, the school buildings are all full now and that won't happen; there's nowhere else to go.
"We've streamlined our academics and share a lot of administrative people," Pierce said. "There would be no changes whatsoever in the operations," he said. "It would be a seamless transition."
That will be up to voters on Feb. 1.