Webster Co. Rural School Districts to Vote on Consolidation | News, Sports, Jobs
DAYTON — After a seven-year courtship, wedding bells may be in the air in southern Webster County.
A special election on March 1 will put before voters in the Southeast Webster Grand and Prairie Valley Community School Districts a ballot measure to consolidate the two districts into the Southeast Valley Community School District.
If passed, the consolidation will go into effect July 1, 2023, in time for the 2023-24 school year.
“But aren’t we already consolidated? is a question that Brian Johnson, superintendent of both districts, has heard time and time again.
In 2014, the two school boards approved a full grade sharing contract for students in grades 5-12, uniting under the Southeast Valley name for Burnside Middle School and Gowrie High School. Each district retained its respective elementary schools – located in Dayton and Farnhamville.
At a briefing Tuesday, Johnson likened the difference between grade sharing and district building to a relationship.
“With the sharing of notes, it’s like we were dating” he said. “Consolidation is like a marriage.”
About a dozen community members attended Tuesday’s meeting at the Dayton Community Center. Johnson said the turnout was higher than previous meetings held in Farnhamville, Boxholm and Callender. These meetings brought together a total of six people, he said.
Enrollment in rural school districts has declined in recent years, resulting in declining district revenues and the need for class sharing and reorganization.
Over the past 10 years, Southeast Webster Grand has shrunk by 70 students and Prairie Valley has shrunk by 106.
“It’s such a volatile market there,”says Johnson. “Right now, we know what rural education trends are doing, in terms of enrollment.”
Combining the two rural school districts into one would bring in more state funding and lead to better rural school longevity, Johnson said.
The state also offers districts reorganization incentives, which are set to expire in 2024.
The special election will take place on Tuesday, March 1, and there will be three dots on the ballot. In addition to the ballot action to reorganize the two districts into one, there will be a ballot action to renew the Revenue Goal Statement and a Prairie Valley School Board member vacancy.
The ballot measure must be passed by a simple majority – 50% plus one – in each of the districts.
If the consolidation vote doesn’t pass, Johnson said, the two districts would remain in their tier-sharing agreement.
Johnson said little would change if the consolidation was approved by voters. The district boundaries would remain as they are, the mascot would remain the Jaguars, the colors would remain teal and black, and all four school buildings would remain open.
The biggest changes besides officially becoming Valley Schools Southeast, Johnson said, would be the merging of financial accounts and the district’s name on the side of school buses.
The unspent balance of the two districts, which resembles a savings account, would be merged into a single account. If that were to happen now, Johnson said, the total would be just over $8 million.
The new Southeast Valley district would also combine the debts of the merged districts. Southeast Webster Grand currently owes $2.9 million in debt to Dayton’s new gymnasium and Burnside’s HVAC system. Prairie Valley’s $2.5 million debt comes from the renovation of the South Wing and the renovation of the high school gymnasium.
Property tax rates in the new consolidated neighborhood would also be affected. In the current SWG district, the tax rate is $10.288 per $1,000 of assessed value, and in Prairie Valley it is $9.256. Johnson said the new district’s rate would split the difference and be about $9.95 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Johnson also said the state’s consolidation incentive includes a reduced property tax rate for the first three years — $1 in the first year, 50 cents in the second year and 25 cents in the third year. In the fourth year, the rate would revert to the rough estimate of $9.95.
Each of the two current districts has seven school board members. If the consolidation passes, they will meet to appoint seven founding members of the Southeast Valley School Board. Three of these seats are to be on the east side of the district, with three on the west side. There will be an at-large seat.
Johnson said so far he hasn’t heard a lot of negative feedback about the consolidation plan.
If the consolidation is successful, the new Southeast Valley Community School District would become the second-largest school district in the state by land mass, Johnson said. The Southeast Valley is said to cover roughly 500 square miles, while the Western Dubuque Community School District has about 550 square miles in its district.
The new combined district would cover almost the entire southern half of Webster County and dip into Calhoun, Greene and Boone counties.
Webster’s southeast grandmother, Julie Andrews, of Dayton, said she has two children currently in school and is in favor of consolidating the two districts.
“I’m all for it promoting the longevity of our neighborhood here and the education of small towns,” she said.
The next South East Valley Consolidation Public Briefing will take place this evening at 6pm at Gowrie Heartland Bank. A final meeting will be held on February 15 at 6 p.m. at Lehigh Valley Cooperative.