January 13, 2014

Declining enrollment, a restrictive funding formula and high transportation costs are key challenges faced by rural school districts today. Rural educators understand those issues - but do their legislators?

Coon Rapids-Bayard School Board president Joel Davis says no. In an attempt to educate state leaders on these issues, as well as the benefits of a rural education, Davis is leading the charge to establish the Rural Student Advocates of Iowa.

"A lot of rural legislators simply don't understand education," Davis said. "They're no different from everyone else. They get hundreds of things thrown at them. Nobody can do it all, and education is not their forte."

On Saturday, representatives from more than 40 districts across Iowa with enrollments less than 1,250 will meet outside Des Moines to hash out bylaws and set the structure for the new organization.

Davis' interest in starting a rural-education advocacy group began about a year ago when representatives from about 10 local schools met at Coon Rapids-Bayard to talk to state legislators including Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, D-Manilla; Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail; Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel; and Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield. The topic of the meeting was allowable-growth funding, but it quickly became apparent that each representative brought his own agenda to the table, said Davis.

"We had a great conversation, but we were not speaking with one voice," he said.

In November 2013, a second meeting held strictly for school representatives was attended by nearly 100 school board members and rural district superintendents from across the state. Davis said the school officials shared the majority of their concerns and determined their issues were not being addressed by existing organizations such as the Iowa Association of School Boards or the School Administrators of Iowa. But what caught really caught Davis' attention was the "sense of urgency and immediacy."

According to Davis, by the end of 2014, 24 fewer school districts will exist in rural Iowa than were present in 2008. In that same time span, the percentage of students in poverty has increased from 33 to 42, but the funding to address the needs of those at-risk students has declined by 5 percent in rural schools.

"If they chose not to exist because they lacked educational opportunities for kids, good for them," Davis said. "But if they were forced to close because of finances, that needs to stop."

Davis said the organization would take a "tuning fork" approach - one tine will focus on helping local school boards network and build personal relationships with their legislative representatives, while the other tine funnels membership dues into hiring a professional lobbyist to reinforce the local message.

"If (legislators) are hearing the same message at home and on the capital, we're hoping it will translate into legislation," Davis said.

Funding is at the core of rural school issues, he explained. Legislators tried to make schools more efficient by tying funding to enrollment, but in rural schools with declining enrollments, this means making cuts. But at a certain point, there is "no fat left to trim," said Davis, meaning further cuts negatively affect student learning.

Another challenge for rural districts are the state funding formulas. Sometimes, a district can be limited in one area, but it can't use leftover funds from another account to cover the difference. One recent example of this restrictive formula at work in the CRB district was when the board used physical plant and equipment levy funds to purchase a bus, but when repairs were needed, those costs came out of the general fund because the board couldn't use the same money to fix the vehicle that it used to buy the vehicle, explained Davis.

Transportation costs also present an issue for rural districts, in which buses travel much farther than their urban counterparts.

"The idea with these formulas is that when kids hit the door, every kid gets the same amount of money" for their education, said Davis. But that hasn't been the result.

"It's not meant to be divisive," said CRB superintendent Rich Stoffers of the advocacy group. "It's about getting organized rather than bemoaning lack of funding. It's meant to make sure we have a seat at the table and that legislators realize we are serious about these efforts to keep rural schools stable."

The rural educators are also fighting fatalistic views of people in power who don't understand the value of a rural education, said Davis.

Davis, who was raised in an urban school in Colorado, and his wife returned to her hometown of Bayard when their two children were old enough to begin attending school. Davis said his opinions on the value of rural education are based on his children's experience.

"I wasn't a gifted athlete, and I mean gifted, so I didn't get the opportunity to play sports," he said. "In smaller schools, it's all about participation.

A small school can't have a team unless students are willing to get involved. As a result, students often participate across the board in arts, athletics and academics. They also participate in areas where they don't necessarily excel in order to fill out rosters for friends who do.

"We're producing balanced kids," said Davis. "My kids participated and grew. We need to explain to people that this is who we are and this is what we're producing."

Area districts whose representatives are either watching the group's progress or have helped spread the word include Audubon, East Sac County, Glidden-Ralston and IKM-Manning.

"We're interested in seeing the state find a better way to account for us," said Audubon superintendent Brett Gibbs.

Segebart and Mulbauer attended a school board meeting in the district in December to listen to area concerns before heading back to Des Moines for the 2014 legislative session that convened this morning.

"They sound like they want to support us, but at the same time, they're two small voices out here in the wilderness compared to the rest of the Legislature," said Gibbs.

Segebart agreed that efforts will be an uphill battle. Rural representatives are outnumbered, he said, adding that Des Moines has seven state senators while his own district encompasses parts of five counties. He believes there is potential to decategorize some state funding to give schools more control over their budgets; Segebart recently worked on similar efforts to loosen funding restrictions on health and human services departments.

Though the state currently has carryover funds, Segebart does not believe the answer to school-finance woes involves funneling this money into the education budget. Maintaining infrastructure with declining enrollment is expensive, and excess funding is not guaranteed, he says, adding that more sustainable approach would be to create jobs and opportunities to bring families back to the rural areas of the state.

As leader of the rural caucus, Muhlbauer said he also supports local efforts, and looks forward to meeting with organization leaders once they are ready. A graduate of Manilla High School, he said the issue of declining enrollment in rural schools is close to his heart as he watches the now combined district of IKM-Manning consider closing one of its buildings.

"It's starting to turn community against community," Muhlbauer said. "Schools need every dollar for their own students, not to help each other."

However, the two legislators agreed that local administrators are on the right track.

"Organized groups are the name of the game these days," said Segebart. "There is definitely a need for the rural voice."