After a lengthy discussion over sharing options and reviews of financial projections, the Ruthven-Ayrshire Community School board voted to continue negotiations with neighboring Graettinger-Terril in an effort to arrive at some type of sharing agreement for the coming school year. But, the decision does not mean the sharing is done deal as another suitor is waiting in the wings.
The RA board held a work session prior to their Dec. board meeting Monday night in the gymnasium, drawing nearly 50 district patrons, staffers and students who wanted to hear more about the progress of the sharing talks with neighboring Graettinger-Terril. In a joint board meeting at Graettinger on Dec. 3, the RA board had been thinking along the lines of a two-way sharing agreement for the two schools, but the economics of the situation changed the focus of the RA Board, which had to explain the switch to a one-way sharing agreement for grades 7-12 to patrons of its district.
In those talks on Dec. 3, a tuition rate of 80 percent of the $6,015 of state aid per pupil was set as a base rate. But in the past few days, the Graettinger-Terril offer had changed to a one-way sharing of students in grades 9-12 from RA to G-T at a tuition rate of 65 percent.
But last week, RA board members contacted the Emmetsburg School District to inquire about both one-way and Partial Day sharing of students in grades 9-12. Emmetsburg expressed interest in either option, at a tuition rate of 50 percent.
Now, with two districts offering options, the sharing talks have become more intense.
Reviewing the progress of discussions since filing the original notice of intent to share, Superintendent Andrew Woiwood reminded the group that five options had been on the table for the RA Board;. Two-way sharing, one-way sharing, partial day sharing, a reorganization or a dissolution of the district.
From those options, the RA board chose two-way sharing, partial day sharing and trying to stay independent without any sharing. But, the final option appears to be unobtainable.
"After fiscal year 2014, our unspent balance is in the negative," Woiwood explained. "If our unspent balance is negative for two consecutive years, the School Budget Review Committee can start the wheels in motion for the state to come in and close our school because we were not financially viable."
But, the RA board's initial plan to pursue two-way sharing was derailed after a review of finances led to a shift to one-way sharing, with students in 9-12 attending classes in Graettinger-Terril. But, the board had never discussed the one-way sharing plan with the district patrons.
The third option, partial-day sharing was not favored in talks at Graettinger-Terril on Dec. 3, but came back into consideration through preliminary talks with the Emmetsburg district. Under partial day sharing, RA high school students would attend classes in the morning at Emmetsburg, and then return to Ruthven for afternoon classes, which would allow the RA students to maintain their home-school identity.
But, partial day sharing also increases transportation and scheduling concerns due to travel between three communities and also comes into play with the current athletic sharing agreement between RA and GT. If RA enters into partial day sharing at Emmetsburg, those students would go to class half a day in Emmetsburg, then return to Ruthven for a half day of classes, and then travel to Graettinger in some cases for athletic practices and events.
The board also held a videoconference with Larry Sigel of Iowa School Finance Information Services. Sigel explained to the board that school financing is a student-driven formula and with a dynamic population, and lack of a consistent allowable growth rate over the past few years, it has been difficult to fund schools.
"Ruthven-Ayrshire has lost 100 students over the last 10-12 years," Sigel noted. "The Legislature, while it is required by statute to set allowable growth rates in the Fall, has not done so. You've had to deal with zero and two percent, but when your expenses are three percent a year; you have to make up the differences. That's where your unspent budget authority is going."
While Sigel noted that the district had received additional cash for the cash reserves, it did not count towards the unspent budget authority.
"You have to think of the budget authority as a credit card, and you can't spend more than your credit limit." Sigel said. "The biggest problem with a student-driven formula is that it doesn't account for declining enrollment."
Reiterating Woiwood's cautions about deficit spending, Sigel reminded the board of one certain fact. "It is far better to control your own destiny rather than to let a bunch of bureaucrats in Des Moines do it for you."
Reviewing the options of one-way whole grade sharing and partial day sharing, Sigel said both options give RA longer financial viability, but only for a few years. Staying as they are without sharing would lead to budgetary deficits by 2014 and potential closure by the state soon after that.
After a few minutes, board member Katie Meyer moved to continue negotiations with Graettinger-Terril for a 50 percent tuition rate for one way sharing for grades 9-12, and adding a provision to require the offering of Industrial Arts at Graettinger.
Fischer called for a second for the motion three times before Enderson offered the second. "I'll second it because we have a deadline involved."
Grandstaff then offered an amendment to the motion. "I would move we continue to look into options with Emmetsburg for partial day and whole grade sharing also."
Board member Tammy Chapman seconded that motion. On a roll call vote on the amendment, the board granted unanimous approval. Voting on the motion to continue negotiations with GT was also approved unanimously.
"This is not a final decision," Woiwood reminded the board. "We still have options on the table to discuss in our joint meeting Wednesday night.