Districts file to link operations

ARMSTRONG – The northern Iowa school districts of Armstrong-Ringsted and Sentral have filed petitions with the American Education Association to consolidate.

Both districts were able to acquire enough signatures from residents in order to file. The next step is a public hearing, tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. April 10 at the school gymnasium in Armstrong.

“It’s in the AEA’s hands now; they are double-checking to make sure there are no doubled signatures and such,” said Armstrong-Ringsted Superintendent Matt Berninghaus.

At the hearing in April, there will be public feedback, along with presentations of evidence and arguments for the consolidation, and any against if they are filed in time.

“There is then a deliberation by the AEA, and they usually rule right there,” Berninghaus said.

Berninghaus and Sentral Superintendent Art Pixler have not heard any vocal opposition to consolidation.

“The only problem may be apathy,” Pixler said. “Those who haven’t voiced their complaints, but may save it for the ballot box. If there’s voter apathy and they don’t vote, a small number of people may overrule what the majority want.”

But, so far, there have not been any complaints, Pixler said.

“I haven’t received any indication from any of the board members hearing anything. … We didn’t hear of anyone declining to sign the petition. Oftentimes, with whole-grade sharing arrangements, people already think we’re all one district, when legally that is not the case. So it’s more of an education process.”

The answer about support may become more visible after the April hearing.

“I’ve talked to other superintendents that have gone through this, and most said theirs passed with good majorities,” Pixler said. “But all of them had that same fear of that unknown opposition when there was no real vocal opposition.”

One area of protest could come from landowners who are on the border of what would be the new North Union district. Those landowners could petition that their land be designated out of the school district and in a neighboring one they also border. However, Pixler said that is a rarity.

“There was a case in the state when several landowners wanted to go to another district,” he recalled. “But after hearing all the evidence, the AEA still kept them with the new consolidated district. It’s rare they will take away property from a district.”

If the Armstrong-Ringsted and Sentral consolidation goes through, they will take the name of North Union Community School District, the name already being used in a three-way sharing agreement among the two districts and North Kossuth.

“The whole-grade sharing is a five-year agreement, but it does state that if there is reorganization of any of the districts, that a new whole-grade sharing agreement would need to be reached,” Pixler said.

North Kossuth has declined to be a part of the Armstrong-Ringsted and Sentral consolidation at this time.

“There’s only one case I am aware of in the state’s history when three districts consolidated into one at once,” Pixler said.

Other areas of the consolidation are described in the submitted petition. The new district’s school board would consist of five members: three from designated population areas of the new district, and two at-large positions.

The new district’s finances are also clarified. Leftover bond issues for both districts will remain separate.

“Both districts have them from building projects,” Pixler said. “The Sentral district area will pay on the Sentral bonds, while Armstrong-Ringsted will pay on its bonds. All other assets will be combined.”

Any district that has approved the issuance of bonds within six months of a proposed consolidation is ineligible to do so by state law.

If the consolidation is approved at the April hearing by the AEA, the matter would be turned over to the voters in a June or September vote. If passed, the consolidation would take effect July 1, 2014.

“Sentral needed a partner, that’s just the reality when looking at the numbers,” Pixler said. “That was why we asked for that in the original whole-grade sharing contract.”