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Study Could Lead To An East Mills School Closure

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By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

A facilities study by a Jefferson-based consulting firm could provide the blueprint for the future of the East Mills School District.

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The district has contracted with Iowa Schoolhouse Construction and Planning Services to conduct a facilities study of the district’s four buildings between Malvern and Hastings. The district formally approved a contract with Iowa Schoolhouse in January at a cost of $8,500.

“What we’re looking at is how to be more efficient to help us with our financial situation and continue to provide a quality education for our students while maximizing resources as much as possible,” said East Mills Superintendent Paul Croghan.

In fiscal year 2012, the district operated with a negative unspent budget authorization of $255,081, forcing the district to create a plan with the state’s School Budget Review Committee. After reductions of 2.5 certified and 2.5 classified staff and the elimination of two district administrators as well as other belt-tightening, the district is scheduled to be at a positive unspent budget authorization estimated at $92,000 by the end of this fiscal year.

Combined with the financial woes was a decline in enrollment.

Croghan said East Mills district enrollment numbers have steadily declined in the last three years. East Mills certified enrollment, which reflects resident students and is used for the Iowa School Finance Formula calculation to determine state aid, is 544.1. That number is down 41 students since 2011. In the last year alone the district has seen more than 90 students open enroll out of the district and just 20 enroll in, leaving a negative open enrollment net of more than 70 students.

“There’s some fluctuation but we’re seeing a downward trend,” Croghan said. “We’re trying to figure if or when enrollment will stabilize or possibly grow, but right now, the trend is down.”
That’s a concern of East Mills School Board President Susan Stogdill and other members of her board.

“Anytime you’re a district with declining enrollment, facilities are always in the back of your mind,” Stogdill said. “We are declining as are many schools in Iowa and this is the main component of our concerns. You have to look at what you’re facilities are doing and do they meet what you need right now and five years and 10 years from now. You have to look at the short term and the long term.”

The process of commissioning a facilities study to assess the district’s financial issues stemmed from a reduction workshop last December. Those talks led to discussions about school facilities, money saving options and Iowa Schoolhouse.

Iowa Schoolhouse is in the process of evaluating the district’s buildings to make recommendations to the board on which, if any, could be streamlined or possibly closed. While that facilities report is yet to be complete, Sam Harding and Duane Van Hemert from Iowa Schoolhouse met with the board in a special meeting March 17 at the East Mills High School and March 24 at Nishna Valley. The topic of those meetings included enrollment trends, facility usage, school finances and a lot of questions from the public about the future of the East Mills district.

A special meeting with the board and Iowa Schoolhouse to informally discuss some early findings was held Monday at the high school media center. No action was taken at that meeting.

Stogdill, who served on the East Mills school board since the 2011 merger of the Malvern and Nishna Valley School Districts and 11 years prior to that on the Malvern board, said the facilities study and the meetings are part of an “overall process.”

“We’re looking at ways we can facilitate our viability and keep this a good place for students to be successful,” Stogdill said. “The financial situation being what it is we have to look at all aspects.”

By mid-May, Iowa Schoolhouse expects to have a report completed along with its final recommendations to present to the board and the community. On June 9, the board expects to discuss its own final recommendations based on the study, according to Croghan.

Both Croghan and Stogdill declined to speculate on what or any recommendations might be made in the report but the district’s inability to sustain two elementary schools seems to be at the center of cost cutting discussions. Rumors have swirled since January on the possibility of shuttering one of the district’s two elementary schools, Chantry Elementary in Malvern or Nishna Valley Elementary along Highway 34.

Chantry Elementary houses 91 pre-kindergarten through fourth grade student while Nishna Valley hosts 151 pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students. East Mills Junior and Senior High, which serves seventh through 12th grade in Malvern, houses the district’s largest enrollment at 198.  The high school added junior high students this year in one of many cost-cutting moves.

In January, the school board appointed a strategic planning committee to serve as a community liaison between the school board and Iowa Schoolhouse. The committee, which is co-chaired by Jay Burdic and John Paul, is made up of community members, business leaders and students.

Burdic, president of Malvern Trust and Savings Bank, agrees sustaining two elementary schools in the district is financially unfeasible. It was the reason why he favored a facilities study. But a by-product of the debate on just how the district should and could cut costs has all the potential of a bitter custody battle over East Mills’ elementary school. The issue of where exactly the elementary school should be has pitted former Nishna Valley district residents against Malvern, he said.

“This is a battle between two districts that have sort of been rivals for the last 50 years,” Burdic said. “And now that’s coming back up in a winner-take-all battle with all of our elementary kids going there or all of their elementary kids coming here.”

Burdic hasn’t seen Iowa Schoolhouse’s final report but he’s resigned himself to the verdict: he feels Chantry will close and Malvern’s elementary students will be bused to Nishna Valley beginning this fall.

“It comes down to who has a better school,” Burdic said. “They have a better (elementary) school. There’s no chance they will close a school that has just been remodeled and has $2 million remaining in debt.”

Stogdill has heard the rumors  regarding Chantry, the district’s oldest building with the lowest student enrollment. She cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the facilities study process has had a chance to play out.

“Everything is being looked at,” Stogdill said. “Everything from programs, facilities, staffing, how to do things more efficiently and perhaps sharing with other districts or sharing personnel. We’re going through a process and no decisions or recommendations have been made yet. The consultants will bring back several scenarios to the table to look at.”

Stogdill didn’t rule out closing Chantry or the possibility that has been rumored since the Nishna Valley-Malvern district merger in 2010 - building a new school.

“I certainly wouldn’t take it off the table,” Stogdill said. “If that’s something the committee and the board look at. One thing you want to look at is when do you need to make changes. Because the process of building involves bond issues and time and money. It’s not like you can do anything like that right away so it’s more of a long-term thing. Certainly it can be discussed and see how the public responds.”

Burdic said public response to the district’s past financial mismanagement and it’s open enrollment problems has been slow. Keeping students in Malvern, anyway possible, should be a priority, he said.

“We’ve been presented with really a couple options: the elementary school is going to stay in Malvern or the elementary school is going to Nishna Valley. That is pretty much what our options are,” Burdic said.

This “battle of buildings,” as Burdic called it, could have far-reaching and lasting effects on the East Mills district and the town of Malvern, the largest city in the district.

“By moving the elementary school to Nishna Valley, you’re making parents in Malvern decide if they want to send their kids 10 minutes to the east or Glenwood, 10 miles to the west,” he said. “You’re going to force people to make that decision. Right now we have a school here in town so there’s no decisions. Doing this will make people choose, ‘Where will you send your kid?’”

Burdic thinks that choice won’t favor East Mills in the long run.

“They’ll want to take their kids the direction they’re working, which is Omaha or Council Bluffs and Glenwood instead of putting them on a bus to Nishna Valley. That is my ultimate argument.”

Burdic’s alternative plan, which he presented to Iowa Schoolhouse, calls for shuttering Chantry and moving the elementary school into the current junior-senior high school while moving high school students to Nishna Valley. Burdic wants it made clear, he’s not fighting to keep Chantry open; he’s fighting to keep “that age group of kids in our school district.”

“I’m fighting for pre-school through sixth grade to stay in Malvern,” he said. “I don’t care what building they go to school in. This isn’t about Chantry to me. This is about losing an age group of students from Malvern. When you lose that age group, you’ll never get young families to move here. And then you’ll lose your school district because we’re the only town in the district with enough housing to re-populate the school district.”

Iowa Schoolhouse’s report is expected to be presented to the board in May.
Stogdill plans to keep an open mind – regardless of recommendations for the short or long term – until she’s seen the report.

“I can see pros and cons to several scenarios in my mind,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to forecast what any of those are until all the data is back.”