Elma group implores H-W to allow busing in town

By Marcie Klomp

“We have four districts closer than [Howard-Winneshiek],” said Elma resident Erin Ludwig at the school board meeting on June 9, which happened to be in Elma. She along with others have been asking school board members and Supt. John Carver to consider allowing other buses to cross the “line” and pick up kids at the Elma Early Childhood Center (EECC).

Currently, H-W has an agreement with Riceville (to the northwest) whereas both districts can go two miles into the other to pick up kids. Carver admitted there was no agreement with New Hampton (to the southeast). A state law prevents districts from crossing lines without a reciprocal agreement.
Elma residents speaking were Bruce Weigel, Dale Roethler, Tom Platte, Stacey O’Brien and Ludwig. They represent’ the non-profit BRIDGE organization, EECC, parents and the business community.

What it boils down to is the people of Elma want their community to survive and thrive. They want to be attractive in many different ways to tempt families to their area. Part of that alure is to give them convenient choices on where their children will attend school.

Elma is unique as it sits in the middle of an area in close proximity to four school districts, other than H-W at Cresco (26 miles). They include Riceville (14), New Hampton (20), Osage (22) and Charles City (23), giving families a bigger choice on where to send their children.

In 2008, an early childhood center was added onto the elementary school (partially funded by H-W in the neighborhood of $250,000). Parents could drop their children at the daycare and have them walk across a hall to attend school. No worries about early outs. Kids just go to the daycare. Many of those daycare children ended up attending H-W.

Elma Elementary closed at the end of the 2013-14 school year. Now parents are thinking of sending them to school districts more convenient to them, such as where they work, where their support system is located or just plain closer to home.

Elma advocates have chatted with school board members and the superintendent to get them to agree to let other district buses stop at EECC.

At the meeting, several admitted H-W is a great school district, but each family has different priorities.

Platte commented, “We are not promoting people going other places than Howard-Winn.” He noted especially with Northeast Iowa Community College as an asset for H-W. “I just think [letting buses in] is a courtesy.”

Carver later stated, “It is important to note that schools are public-owned, tax-supported non-profit organizations, focused on educating kids. Parents who choose to have their kids attend a different school district, under the Iowa Open Enrollment law, can do so, however parents are then responsible for transportation. Under Iowa Law, parents have the option, municipalities and business do not.”

He added, “The bus question has already been before the Board and they have chosen not to make any modification to the agreements in place.”

On the decline in enrollment at H-W, Carver explained it has been averaging 20 per year, but for next school year the number climbed to 25.

“The reason you lost one-third from Elma [instead of more] is some have siblings in the system,” Weigel said. “The ones that aren’t in the system—they are the ones worth fighting for. [By allowing busing into Elma] the worst case is you have a third of a chance of getting them. Our fear is you’re going to write off the southwest part of the district and you won’t get anyone.”
Board member James Kitchen added, “We have a lot to offer. We need to make a point that we are providing a good service.”

Elma businessman Dale Roethler spoke up, “How can you promote a district without promoting a town? It’s been brought to our attention about the declining population [in Elma], which means less tax base, less sales tax, less jobs, less families. We need to the promote the district and the community at the same time.”
Ludwig asked, “Has the district thought about how it would look in 10, 20, 50 years? Do you have a regional plan?”

“Other school districts have not wanted to enter into discussion about that,” Carver answered. “I’ve tried to get into a relationship with neighboring districts. Turkey Valley and South Winn are just trying to keep going. People haven’t gotten to where they need to think different.”

Ludwig handed out a map showing a 10-mile radius around Elma. “We have four districts closer than Cresco. How can we as a community support parents, who support their school for many different reasons? No matter how hard we try to send them to Howard-Winn., it’s not a reality they would all go there. We are just wanting our community to remain attractive for families to live in and our daycare and preschool to thrive. Howard-Winneshiek will benefit if they are thriving, too.”

Board member Doug Berg asked the Elma constituents if they had numbers on where people will go. (General numbers discussed throughout the night were an average of one-third going to H-W and two-thirds going elsewhere.)

Weigel added, “We’re never going to get the town to rally around one school district. Open enrollment is not about what the best school district is. If the community feels like the district has abandoned them, and you are 26 miles away, there is going to be resentment.”

Ludwig chimed in, “I think you could gain a lot of good will if you say you are behind the community. You can portray that Howard-Winn. is working with the community. Do I know numbers? No.”

Weigel concluded, “If the community grows you will get one-third of that. But if the community doesn’t grow, there will less.”
In the past the board policy has been not to allow other buses within two miles of a town. Platte challenged that, asking about a student being picked up in Saratoga, which is well into Riceville territory. Carver stated that would no longer be the case.

Also, students are picked up in Protivin, which is in the Turkey Valley district, and there is an agreement in place with Turkey Valley.

The board is also concerned about keeping things fair throughout the entire district. If buses are allowed in Elma, then what about buses into Ridgeway? It would have to be district-wide, and the board may not be ready to take that route this year.
It is more than likely a definite answer will be given at the next school board meeting, which is in the high school media center in Cresco on July 14 at 7 p.m.

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