BURNSIDE – Southeast Webster-Grand and Prairie Valley community school districts continued their discussions on possible grade sharing with a joint session Wednesday.
Barbara Byrd, Iowa Department of Education feasibility studies consultant, spoke to members of both districts’ school boards and concerned citizens about possibly conducting a feasibility study on the benefits of the two districts going into a grade-sharing agreement.
Both districts are considering grade sharing due to declining student enrollment, decreasing class sizes and reduced spending authority. It was made clear to Byrd that grade sharing was preferable to reorganization or dissolution.
“It can be difficult to have these conversations. I understand how painful it is. I pat you on the back for taking action now,” Byrd said. “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just where we are.”
Grade sharing would allow the districts to not only recoup state funds, but use their staff and resources more efficiently, according to Launi Dane, co-superintendent of both SW-G and PV districts.
“We’re at minimum offerings,” Dane said. “It’s a burden to only have one or two students in a classroom.”
According to Dane, an option being considered is having a high school building in Gowrie and a grades five through eight middle school building in Burnside, allowing teachers to concentrate on single age groups.
“We just don’t have the space to provide a high school experience,” Dane said.
Byrd said further declining enrollment was not as grave a concern.
“It looks like your enrollment projections are going to stabilize,” she said. “Some (districts) are just plummeting.”
Board members considered conducting a feasibility study, focus groups with their communities, a financial study, or all of those options. The benefits of each were explained.
“As long as the first thoughts on your mind is what’s best for your kids, you’re on the right track,” Byrd said.
Byrd said a feasibility study would not benefit the districts in their decisions much.
“Most of the time it’s to see who you’re going with and you already know,” she said. “I’m not sure a feasibility study would push you along any further.”
She added, “A lot of those decisions are so local. What are we going to cut?”
Dane emphasized that, despite claims, a formal feasibility study had not been done.
Byrd advocated using focus groups in considering what the best decision would be for their district. She suggested talking with recent graduates and alumni. To help the students feel more involved, invite them to design a new high school name and mascot.
Byrd also advised against inaction.
“Act while you still have some options. Sometimes, it gets so bad you have no options,” she said. “Something needs to happen and probably that would involve sharing or some kind of reorganization.”
As a consultant, Byrd would not suggest what programs to cut or which buildings to use, but rather provide financial reports based on state funding if both districts approved grade sharing.
“It can be a heart wrenching time, but it can also be an exciting time,” she said. “You’re headed in the right direction.”
The school board members, in a joint session, unanimously approved conducting focus groups and receiving a financial report, but not conducting a feasibility study.