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G-R residents air grievances, concerns at first dissolution forum

April 3, 2016
BENNET GOLDSTEIN - Central Iowa Press , Reinbeck Courier

REINBECK - One of the first individuals to walk inside the Gladbrook-Reinbeck school gymnasium this week unfolded a stadium chair on top of the backless bleacher seats.

Her setup appeared to convey the expectation the ensuing gathering would be a long one. The two-hour public forum did not disappoint.

A wall-to-wall crowd of hundreds packed the room to listen to the G-R dissolution commission explain its work.

Article Photos

Gladbrook-Reinbeck residents shared concerns with members of a dissolution commission Monday at the G-R Junior/Senior High School. The commission is tasked with determining how G-R assets and territory would be divided among contiguous district if G-R voters approve a dissolution measure in a future special election.
Photo By Bennet Goldstein

The seven-member committee is tasked with a proposal for the dissolution of the district, which involves the division of its assets and territory with neighboring school districts.

Commission members are soliciting public feedback, which they will consider as they draft the proposal in coming months.

Attendees of Monday's meeting were disheartened by the animus created after the G-R school board closed a Gladbrook elementary and middle school campus last year. In response, a citizen-action group opposed to the closure successfully petitioned for the initiation of dissolution proceedings.

Anne Boyer, commission chairwoman and G-R school board member, said commission members met with six of seven contiguous districts that expressed interest in accepting G-R territory: BCLUW, Dike-New Hartford, GMG, Grundy Center, Hudson and North Tama.

She emphasized G-R will cease to be a district if voters approve a measure for dissolution. G-R territory can be carved in any number of ways, but at least 5 percent must go to one contiguous district and 95 percent to another.

"Kids will be divided," Boyer said in an interview.

The commission will tinker with potential boundary lines in coming weeks, she said.

Then it will hold a public meeting to review the proposal before sending it to the G-R School Board in August for possible revision. Following board action, a public hearing is to be held within 60 days.

Within 40 days of the hearing, the dissolution proposal must be sent to district voters during a special election. If it receives a majority vote, the district would be dissolved. If it does not, the G-R district survives in its present form.

Neighboring district officials have not committed to using G-R facilities, Boyer noted.

G-R staff would also lose their jobs, she said. They would receive hiring preference for one year if receiving districts need to hire as a result of increased student enrollment.

G-R staff who accepted early retirement or are eligible for unemployment benefits would still receive those benefits, commission members said.

The timing of the special election would determine what year the dissolution would occur. If the measure passes and district officials notify the Iowa Department of Education by Jan. 1, 2017, G-R would officially dissolve July 1, 2017. If the election occurred after Jan. 1, the dissolution would not take place until July 1, 2018.

G-R is the first Iowa school district to initiate dissolution proceedings voluntarily by petition, noted Jeff Berger, Deputy Director of the Iowa Department of Education, who spoke at Monday's meeting.

Generally, dissolution is involuntary and state-driven - a measure of last resort for districts struggling to remain afloat, he said.

Several attendees questioned the method by which the dissolution process was initiated. They claimed the actions of a minority of G-R residents is harming the entire district.

Under Iowa Code, a commission must be formed if 20 percent of eligible voters in a school district sign a petition. Of the 3,061 registered voters in the G-R district, 726 signed.

Even if the measure does not pass, another petition could be brought before the G-R school board in the future, Berger said.

Bob Cahalan, whose wife is a G-R employee, said his children will graduate from G-R in two years.

"They can't understand why - when we have a school board who doesn't recommend to close our district [and] we have a state who finds no reason to close our district - do these adults continue to push to close our district," he said.

Cahalan said he was displeased with the decision to close the Gladbrook campus, but it is time for G-R residents "to move on."

"We have to keep sticking together and keep the school here because it's for the kids," he said.

Some Gladbrook residents said those who object to dissolution are ignoring the impact the Gladbrook closure is having on residents of that town.

In explaining the closure, the G-R board previously stated that declining student enrollment and state funding was straining the district's finances; closure of the Gladbrook campus would reduce expenses and keep the district in the black.

Critics of that decision claimed a jump in open enrollments out of the district following the closure offset any cost savings because the district loses over $6,000 in state funding for every student who leaves.

Linda Reardon-Lowry, of Gladbrook, told the commission G-R lost thousands of dollars as a result of increased open enrollment in 2015-16. As of October, 125 students enrolled out of the district, over the 70 students who did so the previous year.

Reardon-Lowry urged attendees to consider the prospect of involuntary dissolution in G-R's future.

In explaining her support for dissolution, another attendee remarked schools in four districts are located closer to Gladbrook than is the Reinbeck campus.

"It's just common sense for the southern part of this district to go south," she said. "If you think about that and the money you're losing in the long run, we would be better off saying our goodbyes and going our separate ways."

Superintendent Jay Mathis noted the district's finances resemble those of most rural districts, which face declining student enrollment and reduced growth in state funding.

G-R school board member Doug Rowe noted a decision to keep the district alive does not condemn it to bankruptcy. There are many ways G-R can save money and continue to operate, he said, such as staff and grade sharing with other districts.

G-R junior Sasha Nagle encouraged the commission to also seek student input during dissolution proceedings.

If G-R ceases to exist, students will be torn from friends and some high schoolers will never graduate as Rebels, she said.

"Ultimately this is who it affects," Nagle said.



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