CHARTER OAK, Iowa | Charter Oak-Ute High School defeated Whiting, 56-37, in girls basketball on Thursday night in what likely will be the last game for the Bobcats in their home gymnasium.
Charter Oak-Ute has entered a whole-grade sharing agreement with neighbor MVAO High School in Mapleton. Fifty-five high school students from CO-U will head to what will be called MVAO-COU High School come August. Through Iowa's open enrollment law, 14 high schoolers are destined for Denison-Schleswig High School in Denison, while another half-dozen have indicated plans to attend Boyer Valley High School in Dunlap.
"We're sad that an era has to end and that we cannot have a high school here," CO-U Superintendent Rollie Wiebers said. "But I'm confident long-term it's the right decision for our district and our students."
Charter Oak and nearby Ute joined forces in 1962 to create the Charter Oak-Ute district. Some 17 years later, a young teacher, Mr. Wiebers, was hired. At that time, autumn 1979, the district educated 850 students in grades K-12.
And now? The count at Charter Oak-Ute comes to 264 students. That's a loss of 586. Keep in mind that during that 37-year span of enrollment decline, the district grew geographically to include the town of Soldier, a community whose district, East Monona, dissolved in 2003.
Charter Oak-Ute experienced a decline of 78 students from 2005 to 2015; a decade in which Maple Valley/Anthon-Oto shrank by 178.
Along with the enrollment drop comes a state-aid package that has school leaders frustrated. Gov. Terry Branstad last week signed a bill backed by the Republican-led Legislature that increase supplemental state aid for K-12 districts by a mere 1.11 percent next year.
"I remember one year in the last 7-10 years when the state gave us zero (increase in state aid)," said Steve Oberg, superintendent of schools at MVAO. "This 1.11 percent is the smallest (increase) in recent history."
Oberg said he'll have $61,000 in new money to spend next year. That's in addition to the incentive dollars MVAO will receive thanks to the whole-grade sharing pact with Charter Oak-Ute, which will pay MVAO tuition for the 55 high school students it is sending to Mapleton. Charter Oak-Ute will receive state incentives totaling $6,608 per pupil, multiplied by 55 pupils and multiplied by .1 in an arrangement that encourages whole-grade sharing.
On the flip side, Wiebers had to send out 10 pink slips to teachers at CO-U. With there being no high school in Charter Oak next year, the district can operate without a high school teaching staff.
"That's the bad thing," Wiebers said. "We'll have 10 high school teachers who will get reduction or termination notices. We did give them advance notice and we'll help them find jobs. It's difficult; they're good people, they're good teachers. This isn't their doing, it's a fact of life."
"Our savings after staff and program reductions, and even with us paying tuition to them (MVAO), we'll have $250,000, which enables you to provide the things you need for a K-8 system."
The tiny boost in state assistance, according to Oberg, will be offset over the next two years in tuition payments MVAO will receive from CO-U for 55 high schoolers. Charter Oak pays 80 percent of the $6,608 for each student it sends to MVAO. Wiebers' district keeps 20 percent for transportation costs.
"The current climate wasn't as much as push," Oberg said, referring to the state's effort to balance its budget. "This was more due to declining enrollment."
"If we went through 1.11 percent in state aid for two years, I'm not sure we could have maintained a K-8 facility," Wiebers said. "We wouldn't have had the resources and the state would have told us where to go."
The Charter Oak-Ute superintendent said his district closed the school at Ute several years ago as a way to operate more efficiently. The district used 1-cent sale tax funds to update the facility at Charter Oak, increasing its efficiency. Ultimately, though, more had to give. It happens when a district shrinks to fewer than 300 students.
"When you get under 300, you can't offer the correct academic programming at the high school level," Wiebers said. "You cut kids out of opportunities, especially in the vocational areas. That was the overriding factor in the decision."
The whole-grade sharing pact was approved unanimously by both school boards in January. Following that vote, the student councils from both high schools met. Plans are being made for Wiebers to bring the Charter Oak-Ute High School students to MVAO High School for a "mock schedule day" in March, their day to learn the system, see classrooms and meet their new teachers. The two schools will have a dance in the coming weeks as well.
The two schools have shared baseball for the past few summers, as well as boys track for the past two years. They will share baseball again this summer. And, for what is likely its last season, the Charter Oak-Ute Bobcats will field its own softball team.
MVAO, which educates children in preschool through fifth grade and grades 9-12 in Mapleton, will not have to add to its facilities.
Said Oberg: "Around 2007, I know, we had more kids in high school here than we'll have next fall with the addition of the Charter Oak-Ute kids."