The fate of the East Mills School District’s buildings and, perhaps, the future of the entire school district is in the hands of the East Mills School Board.
After months of study, speculation and rumor, the district’s board-appointed strategic planning committee has made its recommendation on how the cash-strapped and geographically divided school district should proceed in the short and long term.
In its two-hour meeting at East Mills High School last Monday, the strategic planning committee reviewed the data gathered by Iowa Schoolhouse, a Jefferson-based consulting firm. Iowa Schoolhouse spent a month this spring studying the district’s four buildings stretched between Malvern and Hastings and analyzing costs.
The committee presented the school board with its recommendation at the board’s regular meeting later Monday night.
The committee has been meeting weekly since April. In May, Iowa Schoolhouse presented the committee with several scenarios addressing the immediate needs and future needs for the district. These scenarios, running the gamut from the immediate closing of one school and consolidating into two school buildings, to the long-term potential of building a brand new kindergarten-12th grade school, were presented in a handful of detailed options. The resulting report and Iowa Schoolhouse’s data has garnered much speculation as to the long term viability of a district that has dealt with financial issues and dwindling enrollments since the 2010 merger of the former Nishna Valley and Malvern School Districts.
After much debate and consideration of the presented options, the committee whittled their recommendations down to two: a short term plan for closing Chantry Elementary and consolidating primary education at the Nishna Valley campus and a future $3 million renovation to Nishna Valley to convert the building to a K-12 school.
Both options have merit and both options have enough moving parts to give the board the information they need to make the best decision for the district in this time of transition, said East Mills Superintendent Paul Croghan.
“With the information we have now, these are viable options,” Croghan said.
In the short term, the committee voted unanimously to go with the Iowa Schoolhouse option “A.” That plan would have all pre-school through sixth grade students moving over to Nishna Valley and keeping seventh through 12th grade students at the current East Mills High School-Middle School in Malvern. The plan would also shutter Chantry Elementary School in Malvern with the intention of re-purposing it as potentially a community center or for sale as possible residential development. According to documents provided by the committee, Option A could save the district an estimated $81,750 annually.
A single long-term option didn’t have unanimous support, however seven members of the 10-member committee threw their support behind option “H.” That plan calls for a voted physical plant and equipment levy (PEPL) revenue bond that could generate the nearly $3 million in new revenue needed to renovate Nishna Valley to serve as the district’s K-12 school. East Mills Middle-High School and Chantry Elementary would be utilized during renovation of Nishna Valley and then closed and disposed of with the opening of the new school, likely in 2018-2019 school year.
When the renovations to the former Nishna Valley building are complete, the district estimates savings of $300,000 annually in utilities and staff consolidation.
Option H, however wasn’t the only scenario that garnered votes or support. Three committee members opted for option E and four committee members who voted for option H also said they could support that option. Option E would require passage of a 20-year, general obligation bond to raise $11.5 million for the district. Those funds would then be used to design and renovate the current East Mills Middle-High School as the a new K-12 building. The district would then close and dispose of Chantry and Nishna Valley. The total savings for the district for this project could exceed $315,000 annually when complete.
Sheri Bowen was one of the seven committee members who voiced support for both option E and H but ultimately voted for option H. She feels she could get behind either option because the goal is the same: a K-12 building for East Mills.
“I am very supportive of going to a K-12 building,” Bowen said. “I think for us to be fiscally viable into the future, long range, this is something that has to happen. To do that, we really only have two options: the Nishna Valley campus or the large high school building in Malvern.”
Bowen feels either site provides the same education opportunities for kids but the decreased cost of just under $3 million to convert the Nishna Valley campus to a K-12 building as opposed to the $11 million needed to renovate the current East Mills Middle-High School, is the “most fiscally responsible” step of the two.
“The Malvern site is the most politically correct site,” Bowen said. “It’s in the largest community and I think it’s where we would like to see it stay, but in all honesty I’m struggling with the bond issue and feasibility of passing that bond. If the district as a whole is supportive of that, then I can get behind that option as well.”
A general obligation bond would require a 60-percent super majority vote to pass among district residents.
Croghan, East Mills superintendent, wasn’t surprised the committee focused on the long term in options E and H. Both are viable and both have long-term impact and their own support in the community.
“The question is how do you get there, how much are people willing to support those things and the other part, the hard to determine part is, what is the district make up going to look like in 25 years?” Croghan said. “Where’s the population going to be, what is the (Highway 34) bridge going to bring in? People have to be willing to look at all of that. If the vote were today, I think H would be the choice but I think E is a very viable option for people who are willing to get behind it.”
Croghan said the decision will likely come down to public opinion expressed in the voting booths. The superintendent pointed to the committee’s own recommendation vote as evidence.
“It was a 7-3 vote,” Croghan said. “But four of the people who voted for H said they also would support E. This is really going to come down to the vote of the people. It’s going to come down to people understanding why the district would want to do one over the other. The bond, the voted PEPL is going to be a part of that conversation. It’s going to take some education.”
Education for the community and for the board in this process was the goal of the strategic planning committee, Bowen said. And even with the committee’s recommendation of Plans A and H, the school board likely won’t stop searching for alternatives of their own.
“My personal opinion, this is a starting point,” she said. “It’s evident something has to change. Our budget cannot continue as it has been, so something has to change to make us a more efficient district to be more viable without hurting education for kids.”
The board was to announce its final decision, based on the committee’s recommendation, at a meeting in Malvern last night.