Orient-Macksburg officials move forward with plan to close Iowa school district

All members of the Orient-Macksburg School Board after voting to dissolve the school district, which could be the first in Iowa to shutter since 2015. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

June 11, 2024

Orient-Macksburg School Board approves the resolution to dissolve, but voters will make the final decision.

Silence filled the room after Orient-Macksburg School Board members made the hardest decision anyone in their position could make: They unanimously voted for a resolution to dissolve the school district that has served the community since 1960.

“No matter what decision we make, Orient-Macksburg isn’t going to be Orient-Macksburg,” said board president Jana Scott before calling for a roll call vote at Monday’s school board meeting.

Board members said they contemplated this decision for several years and even considered reorganization—the formal process of being folded into another contiguous school district—but noted dissolution gave the district the best opportunity to control its fate.

“We’ve seen our unspent balance shrink and when you look at the enrollment of our district, it makes it hard to go one way or the other,” board vice president Alex Maeder told Starting Line. “It’s a tough decision because no one wants the school to close.

“When it came down to reorganization or dissolution, at the end of the day, Orient-Macksburg would be no more, so it’s what’s best for the community. We want to do it on our own terms and we don’t anyone telling us, ‘Hey, you have to do it this way.’”

As Orient-Macksburg officials work on the formal process of dissolving, the matter will be put to a public vote sometime in March 2025 where residents in the district will make the final decision.

While Orient-Macksburg is debt-free, school officials noted that the district will not be able to financially sustain itself beyond next school year based on its certified enrollment numbers and correlating funding from the state.

The district’s certified enrollment number is 163.9 students for the 2023-24 school year, but 86.9 students 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 Orient-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 was only 108 in the 2023-24 school year. If every student who lived in the district 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.

Additional state funding could help Orient-Macksburg and other rural districts stay afloat.

Although the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature continues to pass increases in state supplemental aid, the increases—2.2% on average since 2015—are not enough to keep up with inflation.

 

What to expect moving forward

During Monday’s meeting, Orient-Mackbsurg Superintendent Jeff Kruse invited La Vurne Superintendent Jon Hueser to speak to the board and community and answer their questions on what it’s like to close a school district.

Hueser was the superintendent of the now-defunct Corwith-Wesley School District when it dissolved in 2015, the last school district in Iowa to do so. He also steered La Vurne through its reorganization with the Algona School District.

“It’s one of the toughest decisions you will ever make,” Hueser said of dissolution. “It is brutally hard on [the] board, it’s brutally hard on staff; the ones that handled it the easiest are the kids. Always keep that in mind.”

The process of dissolving is complex and involves a lot of moving parts and parties. Hueser said something often overlooked in that process is what to do with school memorabilia. He suggested Orient-Macksburg form a committee to handle that.

“I had somebody come in and they cataloged every trophy—even the seventh-place band trophy from 1968 in Algona,” he said. “Those are the things that the community really likes and wants.”

The other big challenge is figuring out what to do with the school building. Seemingly, this won’t be as big of an issue in Orient after city officials told board members and the community the city would be interested in the property during the May board meeting.

Hueser also told the board that this decision will be hard on them emotionally, especially because in smaller communities, many of the board members are friends with school staff members who will be losing their jobs.

“Our board president, his dad was the board president and his grandpa was the board president,” Hueser said. “The last thing he wanted was for the district, under his watch, to be done, but the choice wasn’t there anymore. We can’t make up kids. We can’t bring them into rural Iowa.”


How Dissolution Works

The Orient-Macksburg School Board approved a resolution of dissolution at its June 10 board meeting, but the district’s voters will ultimately have the final say via a ballot measure, most likely in March 2025.

Following the passage of the resolution, the board has 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 already 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 with those districts’ school boards and 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 it 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.

  • 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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