School boards in north Iowa’s Forest City and Woden-Crystal Lake districts are holding public hearings this week on a plan to move their students into shared classrooms. One week later voters in southwest Iowa’s Cass County will be deciding on merging the C-A-M and Anita school districts. Woden-Crystal Lake had been sharing students with Titonka, but superintendent Dwight Widen says the numbers have fallen below state standards.

Widen says their last year of certified enrollment was 126 students and when they combined with Titonka, they still had less than 300 students, and the state says you can’t reorganize if you have less than 300. Financially students equal dollars. The state pays each school more than six-thousand dollars a year for each student enrolled. That’s why when Woden-Crystal Lake’s school board went visiting neighboring school districts shopping for classrooms to educate their students next year, school boards envisioning additional student dollars discretely rolled out the red carpet.

“The red carpets that were established, were there before, maybe they got vacumed up and shampooed up a little bit, but it was never done in a sales pitch way,” Widen says. After visiting and evaluating neighboring districts Titonka’s school board opted to send their students to Algona next year.

Woden-Crystal Lake’s public hearing is on choosing Forest City where superintendent Darwin Lehman is also managing declining enrollment. Lehman says gaining Woden-Crystal Lake’s fifth through 12th graders next year helps Forest City’s budget. Lehman says they won’t have to hire any new staff and costs won’t increase, so adding the students will improve their bottom line. In southwest Iowa’s Cass County, the Cumberland-Macina and Anita school districts superintendent Steve Pelzer says his districts are still large enough and to be able to vote on consolidating.

Pelzer says they’ve worked for seven years to align their curriculum and teacher contracts and board policy, but says that has been difficult to do under two administrations and school boards. Pelzer is the shared superintendent for the southwest Iowa schools which have also been whole grade sharing students such as Woden-Crystal Lake is now contemplating with Forest City.

As some rural schools combine classrooms and others consolidate into a single, larger geographic district, students spend more time on buses to get from home to class. In Woden, grandmother Jackie Eden worries about that. Eden accepts the new school arrangements as inevitable and necessary for high quality education, but laments rural Iowa’s changing profile from her high school graduation 51 years ago.

“I hate to see these little schools go away, because the way of life is going away with it too, that we’ll never get back,” Eden says,”but realistically there’s really not much of a choice. The kids aren’t there, so we can’t do any different. But it’s going to be too bad, because a way of life will be gone.” Seventy of Iowa’s 361 school districts are involved in whole grade sharing, and 31 don’t have a high school.