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Mt. Pleasant News   Wash Journal
Neighbors Growing Together | Dec 15, 2017

Van Buren-Harmony reorganization up for vote Feb. 6

Eighty-five property owners want out of district, most prefer Central Lee
By Rusty Ebert, Ledger correspondent | Nov 15, 2017

KEOSAUQUA – The Great Prairie Area Education Agency approved the petition for reorganization from Van Buren and Harmony Community school districts residents, setting in motion a vote that will take place Feb. 6.

The vote to reorganize needs a majority of support in each district to pass.

The AEA held a hearing on the matter Nov. 8 at the Van Buren high school gym. The AEA also denied a request from 85 property owners, asking the board to allow them to opt out of the boundary of the new district, with nearly all wanting to be included in the Central Lee district.

During a reorganization, property owners have a right to petition the AEA to protest the boundaries of the proposed new district.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, “The AEA has broad authority to enter an order fixing the boundaries for the proposed school corporation as will, in the AEA’s judgment, be for the best interests of all parties concerned, having due regard for the welfare of adjoining districts. Fixing boundaries is not so much a process of satisfying all parties involved, but rather is a process of developing school district boundaries that will stand the test of time. A decision on exclusion of territory shall balance the rights of the objector with the welfare of the reorganized district.

“In making its decision on boundaries, the AEA shall consider all available evidence, including, but not limited to:

• Information presented by the petitioners,

• All objections requesting territory exclusions,

• Reorganization studies and plans,

• Geographical patterns evidenced by students using open enrollment to attend school in another district,

• Potential travel distances required of students, and

• Geographic configuration of the proposed district.”

According to Rich Gaumer, the AEA lawyer who looked at the affidavits, 72 of the affidavits were from Lee County, most in Van Buren and Harrison townships.

“Most of the residents of Croton filed objections to the boundary,” he said.

The rest were in Van Buren County, with eight in Farmington and others nearby.

Gaumer created a color-coded map showing the areas of the affidavits.

Much of the area surrounds Shimek Forest, which is owned and managed by the state of Iowa, Gaumer added.

Gaumer said he would recommend against those that created an “island,” a Central Lee territory surrounded by the new district, for example. Because of that, he urged the AEA not to accept the challenges within Van Buren County.

He didn’t have recommendations in the challenges from Lee County. The AEA then took comments.

Those filing affidavits for boundary changes said Central Lee was closer and they wanted bus service for their children who are currently open enrolled.

Those against the boundary changes said it would affect the viability of the new district. Action by a Central Lee administrator in trying to get the AEA to enlarge the Central Lee school district at the expense of Van Buren and Harmony school districts was labeled “unethical” and “hypocritical” by two Van Buren school board members during the special hearing.

Gary Steffensmeier, who is listed as Central Lee “district staff” on the school’s website, was one of the speakers in favor of the boundary changes. He is a resident of the Harmony school district, living in Croton. His children are open enrolled to Central Lee. He spoke in favor of a boundary change, saying that he lives 9 miles from Central Lee High School and 23 miles from Van Buren High School.

He said he “understands that this will have a dollar impact, but we are not chasing dollars; it was about kids.”

Steffensmeier alleged that “there was precedent” for the AEA to make boundary changes, based on the changes he said were made during the Van Buren and Fox Valley reorganization. However, Gaumer, who was at the meeting when protests were heard in the Fox Valley-Van Buren reorganization, said Steffensmeier was wrong and the AEA left the boundary line intact with no changes. The Van Buren County Register was also at that meeting and can confirm what Gaumer said.

Gaumer did say that there were boundary changes made by the AEA in Wayne Community and Lineville-Clio.

The Van Buren County Register on Friday called Central Lee Superintendent Andy Crozier, who described Steffensmeier as “an employee” of Central Lee, who teaches and is the curriculum director.”

The Register asked Crozier if Steffensmeier had an administrative contract.

Crozier admitted that Steffensmeier “is on an administrative contract, but not necessarily the same benefits that the superintendent and principal receive.”

At issue from last week’s meeting was a statement made by Steve Pohren, in reference to a comment made by Van Buren and Harmony’s lawyer, Rick Engel, who said not everyone in Croton filed an affidavit. As such, Engel said that would leave “islands” and it would not be fair to those residents to change land without an actual request.

“As you look at the map of the requests, it’s not totally monolithic. Several didn’t object,” Engel said. “If people wanted their land to be in Central Lee, they had the opportunity to file a request.”

Pohren, looking at Gary Steffensmeier, said that “Gary and I went door to door throughout the Croton area and contacted everyone except one that was in Florida and another because of a dog next to a trailer.” He said another tract of land was in a trust and the bank owners did not make a decision. All the others, he said, were in favor, even if they didn’t file an affidavit. Pohren filed an affidavit because he said it was “more convenient” for families to send their kids to Central Lee, because of the length of the bus routes.

It was then that Alex Richards, vice president of the Van Buren Community School Board, referring to Pohren’s comments, said to the AEA “We learned that an employee of the Central Lee school district orchestrated a drive to get land for the Central Lee school district. That really bothers me and is very unethical.” Steffensmeier did not dispute Pohren’s statement on going door to door neither when Pohren made it or after Richards spoke.

Richards said Steffensmeier’s actions leave a dangerous precedent for the AEA, if it chose to change the boundaries under this situation.

Otherwise, what would stop other school districts from doing the same thing, he asked.

Richards said, in the future, AEA would have to be very careful when approving the changes that “every time we have a reorganization that we will have a land grab by another school district.”

The day after the meeting, Central Lee Superintendent Crozier disputed statements by Pohren and Richards.

He said Steffensmeier’s efforts were “done as a property owner in the Harmony School district.” He said Central Lee has no control “of what he does after work hours.”

Crozier said “This was not a concentrated effort by the administration of Central Lee,” even though he did admit that Steffensmeier was an administrator.

He said that there had been people who called Central Lee with questions about the boundary changes and they referred callers to the AEA, Harmony or Van Buren.

He said allegations about Steffensmeier meeting with property owners on Central Lee property “are not true.”

Those allegations were not made at the November 8 hearing and Crozier’s statement was not prompted by a specific question from this reporter.

Pohren called the Van Buren County Register Thursday and said that Steffensmeier only went with him door to door to “two or three” of his neighbors and not throughout the town. He said Steffensmmeier wasn’t part of the efforts on getting affidavits.

“I mispoke,” Pohren said.

Crozier apparently had viewed the affidavits or the area they represented because he downplayed the financial impact of any changes that they would have made in favor of Central Lee.

Crozier did say that Central Lee’s voted PPEL is 33 cents per $1,000 valuation, which is less than some districts. The PPEL account pays for school facilities.

“As far as Central Lee is concerned, (the boundary changes requested) would have very minimal impact,” he said.

That was disputed by both Van Buren and Harmony board presidents.

“This would hurt the budget of the new district,” said Dan Smith, Harmony Board President, during the hearing.

And finances drive student achievement, said Van Buren Board President Andrew Lydolph.

Increasing Central Lee’s tax base would definitely effect each school district’s ability to bond for school improvements, benefiting Central Lee and negatively effecting the new district. Reducing the tax base would mean higher taxes in the district on the losing end of boundary changes, supporters of keeping the boundary the same said. And a reduction in tax revenue ends up hurting students attending that district, they argued.

Smith urged the AEA not to reduce the land that would be part of the newly reorganized district.

He said the boundary changes could reduce the district size by “eight to nine percent” and would “be highly impactful.”

A decrease by that amount would drop the reorganized school district’s PPEL account by more than $10,000 each year, according to Van Buren Superintendent Dr. Pam Ewell.

A boundary change would also not make sense considering the location of the Farmington elementary, Smith said.

Smith pointed out that if the boundary line was changed then “the Central Lee border would be within one-quarter mile from the elementary. We wouldn’t have any students to the east then. I don’t want you to handicap our future that way. This is not a one-time loss, but for a long time. Land is permanent.”

There was no one who spoke against the reorganization.

 

He pointed out that when Harmony entered into talks with Mt. Pleasant, Central Lee and Van Buren on entering whole-grade sharing, Central Lee only wanted to share ninth through 12th grade students, not the middle school.

Van Buren Board President Andrew Lydolph was critical of Central Lee during the reorganization process.

“Central Lee told Harmony they only wanted ninth through 12th students; I find it hypocritical that they want the tax base, but they didn’t want the kids.”

Smith also said that the Harmony board chose not to go with Mt. Pleasant because of class sizes and it is a 3A school. Going with Van Buren made the most sense, he said and wasn’t a decision that Harmony took lightly. The district looked at it from every angle and held several constituent meetings, gathering input from as many people as possible, said both Smith and Harmony Superintendent Kerry Phillips.

 

Property owners in Lee County said they would prefer their tax money stay in Lee County. Others cited the proximity to the Central Lee School and being able to get bus transportation for their children.

Stanton Mertens, who is a property owner in the Harmony school district, filed an affidavit in support of a boundary change. He would rather be in the Central Lee school district, he said. “This is not about money. It’s about the kids. Central Lee is closer. I would like my kids to ride the school bus.” He also said Central Lee offered more opportunities.

Dave Cecil said he lives close to the boundary and wanted to change the boundary so he could live in the Central Lee district. “Everything goes east,” he said.

However, that sentiment was not shared by everyone.

Tracy Hudson said supporting keeping the boundaries the same was not about the money, but about kids.

“Why take it away from our students? I understand what people are saying in the Croton area, but changing the boundaries sets the new district up for problems.”

A Farmington resident had nothing but praise for the Van Buren-Harmony sharing agreement.

Lynn Kracht spoke in favor of the reorganization. She said her decision to send her children to Van Buren rather than Central Lee was a good one and even if the AEA would carve out Farmington for Central Lee, “I would still open enroll to Van Buren.”

Kara McEntee, Keosauqua, spoke in favor of the reorganization, saying she appreciated the work of both boards and the whole-grade sharing agreement has increased the number of programs available to students.

“Many programs are making wonderful students and together, we can do more.”

Former Van Buren school board president, Rick Plowman, requested that all the territory of the proposed new district be left intact.

“It is a decent size and we can forecast long-term stability for the districts.”

Plowman said that parents who don’t want to go to a particular district “already have avenues like open enrollment. Changing the boundary would cut years of viability to the new district.”

Engel disputed the idea that the distances should be a large issue in the affected areas.

“If you look at Croton, it’s 9.5 miles to Central Lee elementary and 12 miles to the Farmington elementary. That’s not much of a difference. I understand it’s more to the secondary school in Keosauqua. And if you go to northern Harrison township in Lee County, that’s just a few miles to the Farmington elementary and over 19 miles to Central Lee.”

He said residents in both districts overwhelmingly supported efforts leading to reorganization.

Engle said that 567 signed the petition in Van Buren and 381 in Harmony.

“That’s a lot more than what is required,” he noted.

***

Van Buren Superintendent Dr. Pam Ewell said the process started in March 2013, when both school districts began conversations about sharing. At first the districts shared athletics and a curriculum director. The next year, they began sharing teachers and started an operational sharing which included buses and other resources.

In addition, Harmony shared teachers with other school districts, as well.

“Harmony has struggled with open enrollment,” Harmony Superintendent Kerry Phillips said. Currently the district has 126 open enrolled out, which is one of the highest ratios in the state, according to Philips.

The district went into the negative balance twice, Philips said and “it became necessary to go with Van Buren to stay solvent as a district.”

“Our philosophy was we have to be better together or we wouldn’t do it,” said Phillips. Anticipating the whole-grade sharing agreement, Van Buren undertook a $5 million project to remodel the old Keosauqua building and make it into a 21st Century building for learning, Ewell said.

Ewell and Phillips said the districts have done well together and both see a “bright future.”

A reorganized district would be the second largest in land mass in Iowa, Ewell said.

As far as the near future, a reorganized district would have an elementary in both Farmington and Douds and the middle school and high school in Keosauqua. However, there are no promises that have been made in the long-term, Ewell pointed out.

Harmony is now solvent financially and currently has a $60,000 positive balance and projects a $200,000 balance next year. Philips said the school board just paid off a $1.2 million bond issue.

“We are going into this as a good partner,” Philips said. “We won’t be a detriment, but an asset.”

State incentives to reorganize will help the new district keep and expand programs. Ewell said that with whole-grade sharing, Van Buren has been able to offer 43 new classes in the middle and high schools and there are 29 different sports and organizations for students.

Other improvements Ewell cited that both districts have seen due to the whole -grade sharing agreement include student achievement gains, teacher leadership, winning the state championship in the science fair, band awards, increasing the agriculture program to 63 students and the early childhood county partnership.

She outlined the process on how the students and the interim board would be involved to decide mascot and colors. Ewell said enrollment at Van Buren has been stable the last couple of years, after a long period of decreases.

She said taxpayers and students will be impacted in a negative way if both districts don’t reorganize.

Phillips admitted that there “were some mistakes made by Harmony to cause open enrollment and we are hoping that this decision will help students.”

The Harmony board also contracted with outside professionals and listened to their constituents on what they wanted, because it was such an important decision, Smith said. Harmony surveyed its residents and they favored sharing with Van Buren, he added.

Lydolph said that his first meeting as a board member was with Harmony when discussions were starting.

“This has been extremely good for kids and the people of this county. We can offer more to our students.”

The two districts would receive $3.4 million in state incentives over the next few years to help smooth the transition and make sure the new district is viable.

As an extra incentive, property tax payers in the Harmony district would see a reduction from $5.40 to $4.40 in their regular foundation levy. This would be in place for three years and then it would return to $5.40 after that.

Ewell said that the proposed district encompasses 555 square miles and would be the second in the state in the land mass.

Engel said after if the reorganization passes then both boards will select an interim board from among existing board members.

Because Van Buren has approximately twice the population as Harmony, Van Buren will have four choices and Harmony two. Both sides must then get together and unanimously choose a seventh board member.

He said the reorganized district would have five director districts and two that would be at large.

If voters in both districts pass the reorganization, the new district would be in place on July 1, 2019. It will be called Van Buren County CSD.

Engel said voters will also have to vote on a revenue purpose statement to spend the one cent sales tax money.

***

In the end, the AEA decided to leave the boundaries intact.

Marge Wilhelm, an AEA board member, lives in Donnellson and represents, among others, Van Buren, Harmony and Central Lee districts on the board.

Speaking to those who asked for boundary changes, she said, “I can understand your position and I know many of the people who signed the affidavits. At the same time, we have to take in the viability of the new district.”

Wilhelm said she was surprised by the number of requests received.

AEA board member Melissa Ballard said “we don’t take this process lightly. I read through every affidavit and we want to do what’s best for the kids.”

AEA board member Matt Greiner said “When I came in I was very open minded when it came to the requests for boundary changes, but after what was revealed tonight” he made a motion to approve leaving the boundaries the same.

The vote was unanimous.

Pohren then asked what was the next step for those signing affidavits and about hiring a lawyer.

According to Rick Engel, the attorney for both districts, by state law, only Van Buren and Harmony can appeal a decision, not individual persons. Since the AEA’s decision favored them, they would have no reason to appeal, he said.

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