Highway 212 schools are exploring cooperation, possible consolidation

RENVILLE -- If Renville County West has its way, schools along the U.S. Highway 212 corridor in western Minnesota and possibly beyond may have something more in common than declining enrollments, aging buildings and the financial struggles the co...

RENVILLE -- If Renville County West has its way, schools along the U.S. Highway 212 corridor in western Minnesota and possibly beyond may have something more in common than declining enrollments, aging buildings and the financial struggles the combination brings.

The RCW district has initiated discussions with its neighboring districts in hopes of finding new ways of delivering education in the region.

RCW administrators and board members have now met with their counterparts at four other districts: Buffalo Lake-Hector, BOLD, Yellow Medicine East and Redwood Falls. BOLD and BLH school board members plan to meet next month. BLH members have already met with McLeod County West's school board members as well.

All of the districts have expressed a desire to pursue new cooperative ventures. They range from the possibility of sharing teachers and the joint offering of academic programs to more pairing in sports and other extracurricular activities.

It's triggered by the reality of declining enrollments and the drop in state revenues it represents. "This has been happening for the last 20 years,'' said Doug Conboy, Superintendent of Schools for RCW, during a joint meeting Monday evening of the RCW and BLH school boards. "If we keep doing what we've been doing, we're going to keep getting what we've been getting.''


RCW has proposed building a central K-12 campus to replace its aging facilities. Before it takes that step, the superintendent said board members feel they must do their homework and consider all of their options.

Those options include cooperative ventures with neighboring districts and the possibility of consolidation with a neighboring district or districts. Even the idea of a countywide consolidation of the RCW, BLH and BOLD school districts has been tossed on the table. At their meeting on Monday, board members from both RCW and BLH said a countywide consolidation would be controversial and unpopular with many adults.

They also acknowledged it could be necessary. "The state is not going to tell you to consolidate,'' said Dr. Rick Clark, superintendent of the BLH Schools at Monday's meeting. "They are just going to fund you in a way that you have no choice.''

In the meantime, the districts see the need for more cooperation and what Superintendent Mike Funk of BOLD described as an "evolutionary change, rather than a revolutionary one.''

Troubling trends

All of the districts have experienced steady enrollment declines, and they expect continued financial challenges ahead. RCW will be working its way out of statutory operating debt by the end of this school year.

The state defines statutory operating debt as having a negative year-end fund balance of more than 2.5 percent of operating expenditures. A school district's plan to get out of statutory operating debt must be approved by the state Education Department.

RCW's enrollment and revenue projections show two subsequent years of operations in the black before declining enrollments and the resultant revenue drop will put the district back in choppy financial waters.


Conboy said enrollment projections show the district -- which now has 630 students -- declining by 70 to 100 students over the next six years. That would represent a state aid revenue drop of anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000.

To make up the difference, he calculates the district would have to obtain voter approval for a $1,200-per-pupil levy on top of the $803-per-pupil levy already in place. And that doesn't provide a single dime for new building needs, he added.

At BLH, Clark said the district is looking at $100,000 in cuts next year and "very, very tight'' budgets in subsequent years. Enrollment is now at 561 students, with projections for relatively level numbers in the immediate years following.

Enrollment at BOLD has trended downward, and is now at 852. YME has seen a similar rate of decline, and its enrollment is now at 1,057. Even Redwood Falls Area Schools, with a reported enrollment of more than 1,400, is predicting declines and interested in cooperation, according to RCW board members.

All of the districts have been through a period of reductions in staff and operation costs. RCW closed its middle school in Danube. YME moved its junior high grades from Clarkfield to Granite Falls and last year approved more than $450,000 in staffing reductions. BLH has looked at the idea of consolidating operations on one campus but would need an expansion or extensive remodeling project to make it possible.

"All three (Renville County) schools face the same issues,'' said Funk.

Strand said the issues run true along much of U.S. Highway 212 in western Minnesota. "If you look up and down (Highway) 212, we're all in the same boat. We all have many initials and very old buildings,'' he said.

The next steps


That's why cooperation is also familiar turf for these districts, which already represent the combination of smaller districts. But where do they go from here?

The first likely step will be the creation of a common school calendar. Board members from RCW and BLH agreed Monday to instruct staff to design a common school calendar. It would make it easier for the districts to share staff, something all have indicated an interest in exploring.

Strand emphasized that all of the districts are interested in cooperative ventures, but he and others said the difficulty is in finding those that work. The districts have their own individual strengths, but that doesn't mean they have "excess'' teacher time in those areas to share with other districts, he said.

He also pointed out that short of consolidation, some savings can't be realized. There would be no savings in accounting by centralizing those operations if all of the districts remain separate entities, he said.

Strand also pointed to cooperative ideas that work, such as interactive television and online class offerings.

The RCW and BLH board members also indicated their interest in exploring other cooperative models. They are aware of a system serving schools in the Grand Rapids area that might offer some possible options.

Ultimately, board members said they face two challenges.

While consolidation will likely offer the most advantages, administrators and school board members alike said they believe the idea will face strong resistance from the public.


They do not expect political support for it either. Conboy said that when he discussed the districts' situation with legislators, they pointed to a popular legislator who advanced the idea of county-wide school districts in the 1980s. He lost his next election by a 3-to-1 margin.

The other issue is the declining rural population itself. Administrators and board members said the decline is both societal and economic in nature, and beyond the realm of their roles in education. By the same token, they pointed out that all of the communities will find themselves on a slippery economic slope if they cannot provide the educational systems needed to attract newcomers to their communities.

"We have to start thinking about saving this area of the state,'' said RCW board member Greg Mulder at Monday's meeting. "The one way to do that is to work together.''

In the meantime, RCW will also continue to explore the option of building a central K-12 campus. Board members approved sending a survey to other similar-sized districts with central K-12 campuses to learn how it works for them.

Conboy said his concern is one of timing. He said there is a need to move faster than public acceptance may allow.

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