NEH, WC patrons hear about the impact of upcoming reorganization

Both districts will head to the polls April 3 to vote on proposal

BLAIRSBURG — In the second of a series of public information meetings, Northeast Hamilton administrators presented the facts about the proposed school reorganization plan on Tuesday night in the media center.

More than a dozen people attended the meeting to learn and ask questions about the impact the proposed reorganization would have on the NEH and Webster City school districts.

If approved by voters from each district, the plan would take effect beginning in the 2019-2020 school year. 

“The basic statements that we’ve heard from people are that ‘we want our school to stay open, we want to keep our teachers and we want our kids to stay here,'” said NEH Principal/Assistant Superintendent Mike Kruger.

In an effort to be transparent and forthcoming, parents and district patrons who attended the first meeting in February, developed a fact sheet for the public, said Kruger.

The most important fact in the reorganization plan is that NEH will remain open, reported Kruger. 

“We want to be the best elementary school for children from birth to sixth grade,” said Kruger.  “NEH will continue to be open”.

Questioned about that statement, Kruger explained that NEH has a daycare center, Mighty Trojan Day Care.  While a separate business, the licensed day care is housed in former NEH High School classrooms  It does not pay rent or utilities to the district, but it has its own funding structure through tuition and it pays for its own programs such as food services and staff, said Kruger.

Preschool children in the day care also have access to Area Education Agency services such as a speech pathologist, said NEH Kindergarten teacher Janelle Oakland.

“It is a great partnership with NEH because it provides access to day care for parents,” said Kruger.

Another important point of the reorganization plan with Webster City is that NEH staff will remain at the Blairsburg school, said Kruger.

Superintendent Mike Sherwood told the assembly that if approved, the reorganization would bring NEH teachers and support staff under the umbrella of Webster City’s master contract which has a higher pay scale.

“This will be a significant pay difference for teachers and paras,” said Sherwood.

He noted that while duties such as registration now performed at both NEH and Webster City would be centralized at the Webster City office, the NEH administrative staff would remain in place.

NEH would continue to operate as a Pre-K through Sixth Grade school and would also give students and parents throughout the entire district a choice of attending classes at the Blairsburg school, said Sherwood. Since a transportation program is already in place between the two schools because of the current whole-grade sharing program, transportation can be expanded to include elementary school students as well, he said.

Voters from both school districts will decide the issue on Tuesday, April 3 with a simple majority vote, said Sherwood.  Voters in the Webster City School District will vote at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and voters in the NEH School District will vote at Blairsburg Town Hall. The polls are open from 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. at both locations.

Absentee ballots are also available at the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Two questions will be on the ballot, explained Sherwood.  In addition to the reorganization question, voters will be asked to approve of a Revenue Purpose Statement for the reorganized district.  

The revenue purpose statement allows the district the flexibility to use revenue that is generated from the Statewide One Cent Penny Sales Tax Fund, also known as the SAVE Fund.  Both districts already receive this sales tax revenue that comes from the state, said Kruger. 

“This is money that is already coming to the district,” explained Kruger.  “It is not a new tax.”

“It gives the school district the authority to spend money as it sees fit,” said Sherwood.

Both administrators stressed that both issues on the ballot need to be approved in order for the reorganization plan to succeed and to benefit the new district.  If the reorganization vote fails, the revenue purpose statement is null and void.  If the reorganization vote passes but the revenue purpose statement fails, the schools will continue to receive funding that it will not be able to spend.

Sherwood explained that if reorganization is approved, a transitional board will be appointed in order to conduct preliminary business of the new district while the current Webster City and NEH school boards would continue to function independently.

The transitional board is required by state statute and is based on population. So Webster City would have four board members and NEH would have one, explained Sherwood.

The current Webster City and NEH school boards would remain seated until July 1, 2019 but the transitional board would remain seated until the November 2019 election, explained Sherwood.

At a joint session last fall, both school districts voted on the composition of the new five member board.  Three board members will be elected from director districts which were also determined at the joint board meeting, and two board members would be At-Large.

The selection of two At-Large board members offers representation for the smaller, less populated NEH district, explained Kruger.

While there is a question as to whether both districts are being represented fairly, Sherwood asked that patrons start to think of the two, not as separate districts, but as one.

Sherwood detailed one-time incentives which are currently available to districts that reorganize.  

A total of $2.8 million in reorganization incentives will be available to the combined district, he explained.  These funds could be used for STEM projects, shop class and band equipment.

In addition, the reorganization will result in $198,000 in tax savings for the Webster City district, he said.

For NEH district patrons, the state offers three years of property tax reductions.  In the first fiscal year, the uniform levy will be reduced by $1 from $5.40 to $4.40.  That reduction gradually phases out in the second and third years by $0.50 and then $0.25.

“It’s a big deal in incentive money for taxpayers,” said Sherwood, who also noted that once the two districts combine, the joint account may result in a beneficial budget for the reorganized district.

Administrators addressed the issue of potential changes in athletic and extra curricular activity classification.

Any change in classification had already taken place after NEH began Whole Day Sharing with Webster City in 2014, explained Kruger.  And while those classifications were adjusted, Sherwood said that statewide classifications for football and wrestling continue to be adjusted as urban schools continue to grow.

Asked what happens if the vote fails, Sherwood painted a dire picture.  

NEH currently has an Unspent Budget Authority of $550,000. But by 2018-2019, that will drop to $376,000. By the 2019-2020, it will be at $100,00 and by 2020-2021, the school will have a negative balance. After that, the state steps in and takes over the district, closes the school and leaves no buildings standing, said Sherwood. Prairie Lakes AEA would determine property lines and the current NEH district could be carved into sections where the student body is divided into several neighboring districts throughout the area.

“NEH could still function, but the Unspent Authority would continue to decline and you have no way to catch up,” explained Sherwood.

Sherwood, who will retire at the end of this fiscal year, noted that many schools throughout Iowa are facing the same dilemma as NEH. He cited several communities he has worked in throughout his career and noted that many of the smaller schools have now combined, reorganized or consolidated.

Asked about the success of the Stratford School District to retain an elementary school, Sherwood noted that Stratford entered into whole-grade sharing with Webster City CSD over 40 years ago and has been banking its financial resources over that time. It also has created multi-grade classrooms.

At this time, NEH patrons have advantages in becoming a part of the reorganized district, explained Kruger.

If the reorganization effort fails in April, the question can be revisited, but with possible detrimental consequences to the district, said Sherwood. State incentives may not be available in the future.