Commission researching options for G-R dissolution

REINBECK – A seven-member commission has been tasked with developing a proposal for the possible dissolution of the Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School District.

The dissolution commission has contacted seven bordering school districts to gauge their interest in absorbing Gladbrook-Reinbeck’s territory, property and student population.

In accordance with Iowa law, the Gladbrook-Reinbeck School Board appointed representatives to the commission following a citizen-lead effort to initiate dissolution proceedings.

From district voters, concerned residents collected 726 signatures, which were attached to a petition that outlines a desired method of dissolution. Those documents were presented to the board in May.

Commission chairwoman Anne Boyer said the proposal the commission drafts may vary from petitioners’ plan depending on the feedback it receives from the school board and contiguous districts.

The seven districts are GMG, BCLUW, Grundy Center, Dike-New Hartford, Hudson, North Tama and South Tama.

“Our role is to come up with the best case scenario,” she said.

Commission members represent geographic regions across the Gladbrook-Reinbeck School District. Along with Boyer, members are Berry Thede, Terri Luehring, Susie Petersen, Doug Rowe, Rod Brockett and Gary Stanley.

The initiative to dissolve the school district was sparked in February after the school board approved the closure of the Gladbrook elementary and middle school campus.

In explaining the closure, the board stated in a letter to the editor that declining student enrollment and state funding was straining the district’s finances; closure of the Gladbrook campus would sustain the district’s continued operation by reducing expenses.

The 2015-16 school year is the first in which all Gladbrook-Reinbeck students attend school in Reinbeck. Grades K-6 are held at the Reinbeck Elementary School building and 7-12 at the Reinbeck High School.

The board’s decision prompted litigation from a citizen action group, and later, the dissolution petition.

Under the petition’s terms, the school district would split along the Gladbrook School District and Reinbeck School District lines that were in place before the two districts consolidated in 1998.

The Gladbrook portion would be absorbed by GMG to the south, and the Reinbeck portion by Grundy Center to the west.

Critics of the board claimed a jump in open enrollments out of the district following the closure offset any cost savings.

Gladbrook-Reinbeck serves 466 students, 60 fewer students than the 2014-15 school year, according to state enrollment figures.

With each student who enrolls out of the district goes state tuition – more than $6,000 per student.

Jay Mathis, joint superintendent of the Gladbrook-Reinbeck and Eldora-New Providence school districts, noted most of the resident students who enrolled out of Gladbrook-Reinbeck enrolled at schools in GMG, Hudson and Grundy Center.

“We certainly as a district didn’t foresee that many students open enrolling out, but the other thing I would point out too, is if we had closed an elementary building or the high school building in Reinbeck, we probably would have had equal numbers heading toward Hudson and Dike and Grundy Center from Reinbeck,” Mathis said. “Either way, when you change your configuration you’re going to prompt some open enrollments.”

Mathis noted financial projections indicate the district will have a healthy unspent balance in its budget in coming years, even with the increase in open enrollments.

But the dissolution commission’s work must continue.

The process of developing a proposal is uncharted territory for members, said Boyer.

During the process, the commission is to solicit feedback and meet with interested school districts, she said.

The commission has one year to submit the proposal to the school board and neighboring districts for review and possible amendment.

Boyer said she hopes the proposal can be presented by April 2016, but that time frame is unlikely.

“We haven’t set any hard dates yet,” she said, adding that the proposal is due in August.

After review, the board is to set a public hearing within 60 days. Following approval, the dissolution proposal must be sent to district voters within 40 days and receive a majority vote to pass.

Boyer said contiguous districts have expressed varying levels of interest.

“I think they will all take some kids or take some redefined lines, but may not be interested in taking a large chunk of [Gladbrook-Reinbeck],” she said.

Even if districts incorporate Gladbrook-Reinbeck territory, there is no guarantee districts will reopen the Gladbrook campus, said Mathis.

“I’d be surprised if they did,” he said.

Mathis observed neighboring districts appeared to accommodate Gladbrook-Reinbeck students who open enrolled, without opening additional school buildings.

In fact, he noted, “The trend in Iowa, in rural areas, is closing buildings, not opening” them.

Although the Gladbrook closure has been “hard,” and perhaps divided parts of the community, Boyer said she remains optimistic.

She points to the positive things going on in the school district, “from academics to fine arts to athletics.”

“I think all of the great things by far outweigh any of the pressures of this potential dissolution,” Boyer said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the projected timeline in the commission’s drafting of a dissolution proposal.