Vote coming for north Iowa schools

ARMSTRONG – With the Armstrong-Ringsted and Sentral school districts weeks away from voting on whether to consolidate, leaders at both say their greatest challenge is apathy.

“We haven’t heard much at all,” says Armstrong-Ringsted Superintendent Matt Berninghaus. “All the board members and myself have been at the cafes and gathering places, trying to inform people on what it’s all about.”

The reorganization plan for A-R and Sentral has been approved by the state. It is now in the hands of residents of both districts.

The vote will be held noon to 8 p.m. June 25, with polling places at the Armstrong Community Center, Ringsted library and the Fenton school building. There is also voting by absentee ballot.

“If I have any qualms, it’s that there is no feedback,” said Sentral Superintendent Art Pixler. “My worry is apathy and people not coming to vote … I guess we’ve been presenting [information] on the progression of the different scenarios we’ve seen of staff cuts, whole-grade sharing, having multi-grade classrooms, how it’s come down to this.”

Both districts have been explaining the reorganization in newsletters and presentations. But there have been very few questions from the public.

“I think some already believe we are one district because of the sharing,” Berninghaus said.

But there is a big difference between whole-grade sharing and reorganization. The 2012-13 school year was the first of whole-grade sharing among A-R, Sentral and North Kossuth. In whole-grade sharing, each district maintains its own finances and administration, while with a reorganization, the districts merge.

“Now that the vote is there, we can’t tell people how to vote,” Pixler said. “But we hope they have all the information, and that’s what people are seeing and understand.”

There are several benefits to the reorganization, such as tax breaks and incentives from the state for the first three years. Whole-grade sharing and reorganizations of rural districts have been encouraged by the state once they drop below an enrollment of 300 students.

“Seven or eight years ago, it became evident that declining enrollment was going to continue,” Pixler said. “Some of those things are traumatic, such as giving up our high school and transporting the students somewhere else … The whole progression was tough before we started sharing with North Kossuth. But we wanted our building to be used, and holding onto our high school was not an option.”

Sentral began a whole-grade sharing agreement with North Kossuth in 2008, in which Sentral’s 9-12 grades attended high school in Swea City, while North Kossuth sent its 6-8 grades to the Sentral school building in Fenton. That agreement was terminated when Armstrong-Ringsted also entered the whole-grade sharing agreement, and the three districts became known as North Union.

If the reorganization is approved, the new North Union district likely will try to enter another whole-grade sharing agreement with North Kossuth.

But for now, A-R and Sentral are patiently waiting for their answer from their districts on June 25.

“It’s the best solution for the districts,” Berninghaus said.