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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Aurelia Community discusses School District's future

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Group Discussion - Aurelia Superintendent Lynn Evans (standing) consults with one of the Discussion Groups at Monday night's School Future meeting in Aurelia. Photo by Dan Whitney.
AURELIA - The people of Aurelia have always been a community-minded group of citizens who are concerned about, and supportive of, their children and the education they receive.

They proved it again on Monday evening, as a crowd of more than 150 citizens of all ages - school children through senior citizens - filled the Aurelia Community Center for a meeting concerning the School District's future.

Superintendent Lynn Evans, himself a 1982 Aurelia High School graduate, opened the meeting by explaining school financing and the relationship between school enrollment and state funding. A graphic demonstrated the decreasing enrollment in the Aurelia School District and subsequent reduction in state funding over the last 10 -15 years.

Evans stated that the Aurelia Board has done an excellent job in being able to keep the District operating as an independent district, but that the combination of decreasing enrollment (Aurelia currently has a K -12 enrollment of 271 and a 9 -12 enrollment of approximately 80) and an expected across-the-board 5% cut in state funding for schools has led the Aurelia Board to conclude that the best option for Aurelia students is for the Board to pursue a sharing arrangement with a neighboring district. Evans stated that there are only 13 districts in Iowa which are smaller than Aurelia, and that all but four of those districts have some kind of sharing agreement in place with another district or districts.

The Aurelia Board has had meetings with small groups of administrators and Board members from both of the Cherokee and Alta districts since the last Aurelia public meeting three years ago, and Aurelia Board member Paul Pingel presented a brief synopsis of those meetings.

Pingel also spoke about decisions the Aurelia Board has made to allow the Aurelia District to continue operating, including reducing the number of administrators from 3 to 1.3, reducing the number of clerical, custodial, and educational staff through attrition, and joining a couple of school consortiums to purchase services, rather than buying goods and services at a higher rate.

Aurelia Board member Brad Rohwer spoke about the goals the Aurelia Board has developed at two retreats this year, which include : providing students a solid foundation of essential skills and an environment of excellence in educational opportunities; preparing students to be competent in a technological society; and maintaining fiscal responsibility.

The Board's first year goals were to explore all sharing possibilities, create a sound budget, share a technology director with another district and upgrade the school playground. Their 3-year goal is to have a sharing plan in place and possibility implemented, as well as to continue improving technology. Their long-range (5-10 year) goal is for Aurelia to "maintain an independently governed school district."

Some comments were made concerning the length of time that sharing has been discussed (i.e., several years). Superintendent Evans said that the Board thought it was more important that they make the right decision rather than a quick one, as their decision will affect the district and its students for years to come.

Board member Colby Entriken took the floor next, to outline the priorities that the Aurelia Board has set for its students as the Board explores sharing possibilities. These ipriorities include having a wide range of educational offerings and extra-curricular activities available; a flexible class schedule; a quality facility; a good student climate conducive to learning; proximity to higher learning, such as a community college; a sustainable sharing agreement; and utilizing Aurelia's current facilities as much as possible.

Board President Dan Winterhof spoke next. He said that the Board had discussed options of sharing with the Galva-Holstein or Sioux Central districts, but felt that both of those districts would involve too much travel time to make either one a viable sharing option, leaving the Alta District, located eight miles east of Aurelia and the Cherokee District, eight miles west of Aurelia, as the logical options.

They have have meetings with Les Douma, a former School Superintendent who has been through the sharing process and also served as a director of an Area Education Agency, and Larry Sigel, considered an expert in school financing, and both said that both the Alta and Cherokee Districts would be viable options for the Aurelia District to consider.

Winterhof emphasized that the purpose of the meeting Monday night was to get input from the community, allowing them the opportunity to share their ideas about what direction they would like to see the Aurelia District take in the future.

Jim Hultgren, who just retired after serving nine years on the Aurelia School Board, served as the facilitator for the next portion of the meeting, which consisted of the group dividing into 8 discussion groups, based on a color-coded system. The groups were told that they had a 20-25 minute period to discuss the issues, and were asked to answer the following questions for their group: What are your priorities for the education of Aurelia district school children? and What would you like the Aurelia School District to look like? Each group chose a spokesperson, and when the discussion period was up, each spokesperson had 3-5 minutes to tell the audience what their group's answers were to those questions.

Evans and Board members were available to answer questions which came up at the discussion tables.

When the discussion and summaries ended, the consensus priorities seemed to be : They would like to see some of the children continue to receive their education in Aurelia, maintain a good education in a good climate and quality facility; offer expanded educational and extra-curricular opportunities; maintain a good student to teacher ratio, and keep the name "Aurelia" in the name of the shared program, since the district has a 100-year-plus reputation of quality educational and extra-curricular programs under that name.

Board member Jen Kaskey, who was literally on her first day as a Board member, thanked the audience for attending and participating. She noted that there were cards on each table and encouraged those in attendance to write any additional questions they might have on the cards and get them to Board members, and the Board will see to it that all questions are answered in the school newsletter and/or on the school's web site.

Attendees were given a handout which gave answers to 11 "frequently asked questions" about the Aurelia sharing possibilities at the meeting's outset, and Board members also stayed around following the meeting to answer any questions that attendees still had.

No timetable has been set yet for making a sharing decision, though the state timetables were elaborated upon in the handout. The earliest possible date for academic sharing would be the fall of 2011. Extra-curricular sharing is another matter, as it is administered by the athletic unions.

It was mentioned frequently throughout Monday night's meeting that talks with both Cherokee and Alta districts are still considered negotiable and that "nothing has been set in stone."

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