- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Once again, the end of a school year means the end of several school districts in Iowa, continuing a trend seen for decades but one that doesn’t get easier for the communities involved.

Because of the closure of the Farragut Community School District and merging of two others, classes won’t resume after summer vacation at three schools in southwest Iowa. For students, it will require traveling extra miles to reach school, but for the communities it will be more than an inconvenience.

“It’s a town of about 500 people here, so there’s a bar, a post office and a bank. And then we’ve got the school,” said Lisa Spencer, the principal who oversees 120 students who attended Farragut’s seventh through 12th grade school. “That’s what makes it even tougher to deal with. It’s not just the loss of a school. It feels like it’s the loss of a community.”

The Iowa Board of Education made the rare decision to dissolve the school district in November, making it the third time the state has forced a school district to shut down, said Staci Hupp, an Education Department spokeswoman. The board made the decision after the district repeatedly overspent and failed to meet education standards.

Since Iowa school funding is based on student enrollment, many rural districts have struggled to keep their student numbers up amid declining populations. U.S. Census estimates released earlier this year showed that 71 of Iowa’s 99 counties have lost population since 2010, and the trend stretches back decades.

“When you’re losing kids, you’re losing dollars,” Spencer said. “It can become really difficult to keep your doors open.”

Although Farragut’s case is rare, Hupp said it’s typical to see a few districts merge each school year, usually because of declining enrollment. This fall the Prescott and Creston school districts will merge, along with A-H-S-T and Walnut schools.

“Enrollment is declining in a majority of school districts in Iowa,” Hupp said.

In 1938 there were over 900 school districts in the state, she said, and next fall there will be 333.

The consolidation comes as some urban and suburban areas are expanding.

That includes school districts in the Des Moines suburbs of Waukee and Ankeny. In Waukee, officials plan to open a new high school by 2021, and in Ankeny, the district recently opened a second high school.

But in southwest Iowa, 88 percent of those voting in the communities of Avoca, Hancock, Shelby and Tennant, which make up the A-H-S-T district, and in Walnut voted to merge the districts, said combined superintendent Jesse Ulrich.

The communities agreed it made sense to consolidate as Walnut had the state’s largest enrollment decline over the past five years. The school district, which celebrated its 144th anniversary last month, had 72 students enrolled during the 2015-16 schoolyear, records show.

Walnut students will now travel about seven miles to the newly created AHSTW school district in Avoca, while their old school will likely become a city-owned community center. The new district will represent five communities with 800 students, Ulrich said.

Although they grow ever larger, leaders of rural schools note that state funding typically doesn’t take into account their rising transportation costs.

“We cover 250 square miles, but we only serve 800 students,” Ulrich said. “We don’t get any additional funding because we have to travel them farther. That takes away the money we actually get to spend on educating kids.”

Steve McDermott, the combined superintendent of Creston and Prescott schools, said consolidations will continue as remote towns struggle to attract enough students and teachers. He’s even had upset community members approach him with concerns that losing a school will dissolve the community altogether.

“And my answer has always been: I’m afraid we’ve already lost a lot of our town and that’s why we’re losing our school,” he said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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