Orient-Macksburg could be first Iowa school district to shutter since 2015

The front of Orient-Macksburg school building. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

May 21, 2024

Officials in Orient-Macksbrug are considering dissolving the 65-year-old southwest Iowa school district

President Jana Scott has served on the Orient-Macksburg School Board for nine years and said the recent conversations around dissolution—the formal process of shuttering a school district in Iowa—have been extremely difficult for her.

“Like losing sleep, sick, a pit in my stomach,” Scott told Starting Line. “We never wanted to do this. We wanted our school to stay intact as long as it possibly could as long as we were offering the best education for our children.”

If the Orient-Macksburg School District were to close its doors, which could happen after the next school year, it would be the first Iowa school district since Corwith-Wesley in 2015 to dissolve.

Headquartered about an hour southwest of Des Moines in Orient, district officials don’t foresee how Orient-Macksburg will be able to continue beyond the next school year based on its certified enrollment numbers and availability of state funding based on enrollment.

While the district’s certified enrollment number is 163.9 students for the 2023-24 school year, 86.9 students have open enrolled out of the district and those state supplemental aid dollars follow the students to their new district. Thirty-three students have open enrolled into Oreint-Macksburg and only two students from the district are enrolled in Iowa’s new private school tuition voucher program.

With all of that factored in, the actual number of students served by the district is only 108.

“I’ve worked in a lot of small schools [and] you really need somewhere around 200 students in the seats to kind of make it go,” Orient-Macksburg Superintendent Jeff Kruse told Starting Line. “So when we’re getting down to 100, it’s getting harder and harder to do.”

If every student who lived in the district actually went to school in Orient-Macksburg, the district would get about $1.2 million from the state next school year, but instead, it is expected to receive a little less than $850,000.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation in 2021 that prevented Iowa school districts from denying open enrollment requests. In 2022, she signed legislation that allowed Iowa parents to open enroll their children into any school district, for any reason, and at any point of the year.

The portion of the 2022 bill that allowed enrollment during any time of the year was rescinded by Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature this year because of the budgeting turmoil it caused school districts.

Spending Authority

At a Monday public forum held at the Orient-Macksburg High School gym, Kruse told the crowd of about 50 people that part of the district’s financial predicament was due to its spending authority. This is a legal mechanism unique to Iowa to control the maximum amount of general fund spending by school districts.

“As a school district, it’s against the law to spend more than the authority you are allotted,” Kruse said. “Now, schools can build their authority from year to year because if they don’t spend all their authority in one year, then that authority carries forward into the next year.”

Kruse said that Orient-Macksburg’s spending authority has been stable the last few years thanks to COVID-relief dollars from the federal government, but with those funds set to run out, the situation looks bleak.

“It is projected that our authority is going to go down quickly based on our enrollment numbers and based on our current staffing,” Kruse said.

Orient-Macksburg could be first Iowa school district to shutter since 2015

Orient-Macksburg Superintendent Jeff Kruse speaks during a May 20 public forum on the school district’s future.

Other options

Kruse said they’ve had tangential conversations with other districts about consolidating into them, but nothing substantial, and he fears Orient-Macksburg may be too late in the game for that to be a feasible option. He also doesn’t think the charter school route would work either.

“I’ve talked to a superintendent that had a charter school and he says that it is not cash flowing, but they still have [spending] authority right now, but their authority is going down,” Kruse said. “He is unaware of how long he’s going to be able to make it last.”

One resident at the forum suggested going down to four days of school a week as a possible cost-saving measure. Scott, the board president, said that would only work if the district’s partner high school (Nodaway Valley in Greenfield) also used that same model.

“Unless that partner in high school goes four days a week, it’s not feasible for our school to support it,” she said.

Another resident suggested a fundraiser, which garnered some head nods from the crowd until Kruse and the board explained that the district would need to fundraise $500,000 a year minimum—without inflation factored in—just to maintain the current level of services.

“Ultimately, we need more kids,” said Board Member Bo Giedel.

The amount of money the district is losing from open enrollment would also nearly cover that shortfall.

With the other options exhausted, Kruse and the board members think dissolution gives the district a chance to go out on its terms rather than waiting for the state to decide its fate.

 

How dissolution works

The Orient-Macksburg School Board will vote on whether or not to dissolve at the June 10 board meeting, although district voters will ultimately have the final say via a ballot measure.

If the board goes in the direction of dissolution, it will have 15 days to form a seven-person dissolution committee made up of people who live in the district and are eligible to vote, according to Iowa Code.

After electing a chair and vice chair, the dissolution committee will then be tasked with reaching out to contiguous school districts to gauge each district’s willingness to accept portions of Orient-Macksburg’s boundaries.

Orient-Macksburg shares its boundaries with Creston, East Union, Winterset, and Nodaway Valley (with whom Orient-Macksburg has a sharing agreement for some high school classes).

If any contiguous district is interested in parts of Orient-Macksburg, the commission would be tasked with meeting those districts’ school boards and with residents of the Orient-Macksburg School District to draw up a dissolution proposal.

The commission would then present its proposal to the Orient-Macksburg School Board and send copies to contiguous school districts. The contiguous districts would have 10 days to provide written objections to any portion of the proposal. If the proposal is modified again, the commission has to resubmit it to all affected school districts.

If there are no objections to the dissolution proposal within 10 days of being sent, the Orient-Macksburg School Board has to set a public hearing within 60 days. Testimony from the public hearing can be taken into account to amend the proposal, which the board has to adopt to move forward.

If adopted, the Orient-Macksburg School Board would then notify the contiguous school boards and the director of the Iowa Department of Education about the contents of the dissolution proposal, and if a contiguous district objects, that district would not be included in the dissolution ballot measure.

When the dissolution proposal is placed on the ballot, a simple majority of voters in each affected district will decide whether or not it is adopted. If voters in a contiguous district reject the proposal at the polls, then that district would not absorb any of Orient-Macksburg’s territory. It would then be up to the director of the Iowa Department of Education to attach any unattached territory to another district.

What’s next

If the board moves forward with dissolution at its June 10 meeting and Orient-Macksburg voters later vote to dissolve, the 2024-25 school year would be the final school year in Orient-Macksburg history, which dates back to 1960.

The Orient-Macksburg facilities include all three levels of primary education, a day-care facility, a preschool, and the public library, all of which are in Orient.

Residents who spoke at the forum told the school board they would like the school property to become city-owned if the district is dissolved, and a member of the Orient City Council who was in attendance said the city would be in favor of that.

Toward the end of the public forum, Stacey Cass, a paraprofessional at Orient-Macksburg and a class of 1991 graduate, made a tearful plea with parents in the district to keep their kids there for one more year.

“As someone who was born and raised here and who graduated from here, this sucks,” she said. “But please, please keep your kids here. Let us staff and faculty have your kids for one last year.”

Correction: Orient-Macksburg School Board President Jana Scott’s name has been corrected.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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