NEH continues partial sharing

The Northeast Hamilton School Board approved the partial day sharing agreement for the 2014-2015 school year with Webster City and took part in a discussion of whole grade sharing and athletics sharing at the January meeting on Thursday night.

Over 60 district patrons were in attendance as the Board had planned to vote on the question of whole grade sharing at this first meeting of 2014. But because the decision deadline had expired, the Board voted unanimously to continue partial day sharing with Webster City High School for grades 9-12 in the 2014-2015 school year.

The decision to enter into a partial day sharing agreement with Webster City stems from a downward enrollment spiral which began in 2008 at the Blairsburg school. Because Iowa school funding is based on student enrollment, NEH’s funding declines with each drop in enrollment. So, Board members have been dealing with the paradox that despite the fact the district is cash rich, it is budget poor.

In addition to a decline in the area population census of school age children, 50 students elected to open enroll out of the district this current school year.

Dr. Roark Horn, Chief Administrator of Area Education Agency 267 of Cedar Falls, appeared at the request of the Board to explore and advise the district on its future choices. Dr. Horn has a unique perspective of the district as he served as NEH Superintendent for five years from 2002- 2007 and two of his children are graduates of the Blairsburg school.

Board members told of their hopes for the school in response to Dr. Horn’s request.

“I got back on the board because I want us to stay a viable district,” said Bruce Mark. “As a board member, it is my first responsibility to provide a quality education to our students. But also (to monitor) the finances of the district and how best to use them”.

‘My goal is to retain the grade school – it is a wonderful building – and teachers throughout the school,'” said Mark.

Board President Roxanne Anderson expressed understanding of people’s wish to keep the 7-12 school in Blairsburg, but noted that state funding dictates school budgets.

“All funding is now down to the number of kids you can count in the building,” said Anderson. “We don’t want to be a Russell”.

She was referring to the Russell CSD which operated in the red for three years before the State of Iowa stepped in, closed the school and dissolved the school district.

“They lock the doors and you’re done,” she said. “I feel we could keep a strong district with a day care and an elementary school. If we could get day care, I believe we would be viable for years to come”.

Anderson noted that there are no more budget cuts that can be made.

“We are at a bare bones minimum,” she said. “If we cut anything else, our kids will suffer”.

Board member Mike Rapp agreed with keeping the elementary school operating, but asked rhetorically why the partial day sharing agreement two years ago didn’t buy the district more time.

“When that agreement was made, we couldn’t anticipate that people would have moved on or it was hard to gauge open enrollment,” he answered.

Rapp still was torn about closing the high school.

“I may be opposite of everyone, but I believe the basic education my kids get here is good enough for me,” he said. “I’m satisfied with what my kids get is strong enough for them. It’s not rocket science, but I believe they get the basics”.

He believed that with keeping the high school in Blairsburg, the district could remain viable for another two years.

Eric Patterson agreed that keeping a strong elementary was needed but felt any announcement of high school whole grade sharing would cause an additional loss of students.

“I’m torn,” he admitted. “I’d like to give it more time, but we are bottoming out. I don’t know what the magic number is to keep the elementary school. I don’t know know where we will be at five or ten years from now. We are dictated by the numbers”.

Board member Marlin Pruismann confessed that he would like everything to remain the same, but acknowledged that realistically, that probably wasn’t possible.

He said he was intrigued by the possibility of whole grade sharing with two district simultaneously while keeping the K-6th grade school at Blairsburg. Keeping a strong elementary and developing a strong day care program are two ideas he felt would keep the district viable.

Giving parents a choice of two different schools might make the idea of whole grade sharing more attractive to district patrons, he said.

Dr. Horn congratulated both the Board on its dedication and the district on the tough decisions it has made in the past for the betterment of the school.

He noted that when he took over as superintendent in 2002, the first item on his desk was to combine the Radcliffe, Alden and NEH school districts.

“The support wasn’t there,” said Dr. Horn. He noted later when the district made the decision to switch athletic conferences in 2002, it was a wise choice.

“Even if it was hard, there is cause for celebration for what you have done,” he said, noting that some of the former conference teams are no longer in existence.

“No one here wants a bad education for their kids just so they can have a school,” said Dr. Horn, noting that past decisions were difficult to make. “It is a tough situation and it was tremendously controversial. But it worked and the district stayed viable over time”.

He said that future decisions of achieving academic and financial viability can be seen as a cause of celebration.

“We can take that next step together,” he said.

He warned that waiting too long to make a decision of whole grade sharing can prove disastrous for a district. He illustrated the point by relating a cautionary tale of Crystal Lake, Tatonka and Wooten which delayed making a decision. Tatonka merged with another district, but Crystal Lake and Wooten didn’t and eventually, they ended up being absorbed by Forest City because all the students chose to whole grade share with the larger district.

“They weren’t pretty anymore and they had no say in the future of their district,” he said. “It was a mess because they hung on as long as they possibly could and there was nothing left”.

Dr. Horn also related the story of a successful whole grade sharing process. In 2009-2010, Ventura worked to become an attractive partner and today has a strong elementary school program, he explained.

Asked if NEH’s finances could be altered, Dr. Horn expressed skepticism.

“You are on the wrong trajectory,” said Dr. Horn. “I don’t want to say it is desperate, but it is desperate”.

He noted that the state’s budget guarantee will disappear in 2014.

“You are running out of options,” he said.

Dr. Horn likened financial viability as attractiveness and said currently, Northeast Hamilton is attractive to other districts.

“Right now you are freaking gorgeous,” he said. “Two years from now, you will be ugly on finances”.

He noted that projections have the district running a deficit by FY 16.

The district needs to keep its advantage and be able to negotiate when it still has a financial foundation.

Dr. Horn suggested that the district consider whole grade sharing for the 2015-2016 school year and that the Board immediately begin working with an attorney to develop an agreement for that partnership.

Asked if the Board could pursue a whole grade sharing agreement with two different districts simultaneously, Dr. Horn cautioned it would be a delicate negotiation.

“You don’t get two wives,” he said.

“Informally, it doesn’t hurt to ask,” suggested Pruismann.

The question relates to a chasm created in 2012 within the district when the Board broke off negotiations for partial day sharing with South Hamilton and elected to enter into a partnership with Webster City.

“It doesn’t hurt to ask, but there are some risks,” said Dr. Horn, who noted a negative reaction by a host school could change the entire process. “Then you have a different choice”.

Dr. Horn urged the Board have its proposal for whole grade sharing developed by August and present it to the public for discussion. The final proposal should be ready for an October vote.

In a related matter, Dr. Horn addressed athletic sharing.

“That is maybe a more immediate situation,” said Dr. Horn.

Because of declining enrollment, some sport teams do not have enough members to field a viable team. Also, the bench is so shallow that players are required to play the entire game.

School administrators, the athletic director and coaches need to determine student participation sport-by-sport in order to identify the sports which are candidates for sharing. He urged this be done this spring to ensure students affected will not be disadvantaged.

“We want to know now so that kids can do summer camps,” he said. “Otherwise, it is not fair to our kids”.

Dr. Horn told the Board and the audience that it was time to make decisions.

“You can’t delay anymore,” he said.

He urged the district to stay committed to education and to each other.

“Good luck with your decision and stay together,” he said. “Don’t end it badly and the only way that can happen is if you start fighting with each other”.

In other news, the Board approved a request for three students to open enroll out of the district for the 2014-2015 school year.for.

The Board approved a change order of $6,511 for the bus barn construction which included additional grading, electrical outlets and plumbing. The Board approved payment of $18,700 to Habhab Construction with $13,087 withheld until the project is complete.

The Board gave permission to Williams Area Development to use published student photographs for an alumni book.

Marlin Pruismann and Roxanne Anderson will serve as board representatives in negotiations with the Northeast Hamilton Education Association.

Supt. Larry Frakes announced that the school’s Food Service has received almost $3,000 in overdue payments as of Jan. 2.

A new past-due policy was instituted at the beginning of 2014.

The Board approved a contract for Julie Olson to serve as the school nurse and accepted the resignation of preschool paraprofessional Kirsten Vaskova.

The meeting adjourned at 8:40 p.m.