After entertaining a lengthy discussion on Hamburg’s proposal to restore its high school programming for the fall of 2019, the Iowa State Board of Education voted against the proposal during the regular meeting of the board on March 28 at Des Moines.
Superintendent Dr. Mike Wells and School Board President Dave Mincer spoke to the board members and had answers for the concerns of the board.
A motion and a second were laid on the table at one point with discussion continuing on for some time. Eventually a vote was called and the measure was defeated.
Below is the narrative from the board meeting from beginning to end.
Eric Heitz an administrator from the Iowa Department of Education School Improvement Team and Amy Williamson, Chief of the Bureau of School Improvement for the Iowa Department of Education opened the discussion.
Heitz shared some numbers related to enrollment.
Thirty-eight schools were identified as having an enrollment under 300.
Out of those, 13 had K-12 programs and did not have a sharing agreement. Twenty four schools did have sharing in place.
Essex was among the schools with a K-12 program that did not have sharing, but it was noted that Essex was going through the process of exploring a sharing arrangement.
Six schools, including Essex, did not currently have sharing and were smaller than Hamburg in terms of enrollment.
According to projections, Hamburg’s enrollment was thought to be remaining steady between 217 and 220, although it was later acknowledged that some students who were displaced by the flood, 14, may not return to the district.
In terms of meeting accreditation standards, 10 of the schools with K-12 programming under 300 enrollment were having difficulties meeting offer and teach in that they did have in place all of the required classes that are necessary for being accredited.
If Hamburg was to have a high school, it was noted that tuitioned students currently attending Sidney would have good cause to file paperwork for an open-enrollment to Sidney or to another school district if they so chose instead of returning to Hamburg.
The issue of a high school was coming before the board, not because of Hamburg’s request but because of issues involving a former sharing agreement with Farragut when the schools operated together as Nishnabotna.
Both Hamburg and Farragut had been given conditional accreditation at the time.
Hamburg has achieved full accreditation, but since the school had been party to conditional accreditation before and had been given a condition of accreditation regarding operating only a K-8, the school needed approval from the state to move forward on the high school proposal.
“Typically, if a school decided it wanted to open a high school program, it wouldn’t have to come before the board,” Williamson said.
In commenting on enrollment, Heitz said there should be some concern about Hamburg due to the flooding which recently occurred there. Heitz said schools affected by natural disasters, unfortunately, usually experienced a dip in enrollment after that disaster.
Williamson declined to speculate on Hamburg’s future as a high school, but noted that schools of that size often struggle with offer and teach requirements and deal with questions related to sustainability of programming.
“It’s up to the board to determine if this is in the best interest of the kids there,” Williamson said.
After being asked about the timetable for the high school return, Williamson said it would be possible for the school to get things lined up for students to attend in fall of 2019 and also possible for the state to monitor the progress of the school.
Williamson said there was a bit of a calculated risk as to bringing back the high school in that the number of students who would return from tuition would be in some ways hard to know.
Dr. Wells and Hamburg Board President Mincer were then given a chance to offer a presentation in favor of the high school’s return.
Dr. Wells indicated the topic of discussion was not a new one.
“This has been a conversation for about two or three years,” Dr. Wells said, indicating that a desire to have a high school was immediate following the break up Nishnabotna.
“We always had in mind to have a high school,” Dr. Wells said.
Discussions by the Hamburg board were aimed at ensuring students would have physics, chemistry and upper math. And, without an ability to offer those, Dr. Wells would have advised not to bring back the high school.
Dr. Wells indicated the novel ideas and innovation that Hamburg has employed with the Maker Space and the Farm School programs for its current students.
“We think creative curriculum, getting students away from worksheets and getting them away from the classroom, is vital to the education of our kids.
“We truly embrace that,” Dr. Wells said.
On Fridays, Dr. Wells said the students do a reading block and then spend the rest of the day in the Maker Space, designing and creating using skills in everything from embroidery to welding.
Dr. Wells said the Maker Space program is one that the governor of the state of Iowa agrees should be extended K-12.
The Farm School, a feature extremely unique to Hamburg, allows kids to build farm support buildings, care for animals and take responsibility in real-world environments that encourage work ethic.
“Those kinds of unique programs are part of this conversation,” Dr. Wells said. “What happens to a kid in the eighth grade when they leave our school and they go to a much different, traditional setting. How will they adapt?”
Dr. Wells continued by saying that Hamburg is extremely isolated with just two school partners in Shenandoah and Sidney, the first of which is not really a feasible partner due to daily travel time.
One Hamburg student is open enrolled at Shenandoah and one is open enrolled to Fremont-Mills, but the balance of students from Hamburg are at Sidney.
Dr. Wells said Sidney has been a great partner to work with and indicated respect for Hamburg’s neighbor.
Dr. Wells said Sidney has been a “God send” during the flood and emphasized that Hamburg’s interest in a high school was not meant to bash Sidney in any way.
Hamburg, which is in the midst of a two-year tuition agreement, planned to honor the commitment in 2019-2020 regardless of the final decision of the State Board.
Looking at the tuition agreement, Dr. Wells said that the Hamburg school spent more than it brought in to offset travel expenses of taking kids to Sidney.
As far as accreditation goes, Dr. Wells said the school has worked very hard to turn around its fortunes.
And the school has tested out as the top elementary school in the area and the second best middle school—evidence that Hamburg’s innovative programs work.
Looking at finances, Dr. Wells said the school went from a negative balance of $148,000 in authorized spending to a surplus of over a million dollars.
They did that, Dr. Wells said, by cutting back on support personnel, hiring teachers and focusing on learning.
Dr. Wells said that even with the addition of the high school, Hamburg could grow its positive numbers going forward.
Dr. Wells agreed that there will be an impact from the flood with 14 students leaving the district and acknowledged those students might not be able to return due to housing issues.
Going back to a September survey, Dr. Wells said that Hamburg found all but three students of the tuitioned students would return to Hamburg if they had a school. One would choose to open enroll to Shenandoah and two would open-enroll to Sidney.
Based on current numbers, Dr. Wells said the Hamburg school could establish an 80-person high school enrollment.
The numbers would allow for Hamburg to have its own athletic teams where kids could start and have significant playing time.
Academically, the students would have the support they needed.
“We will have a certified staff that can run a school,” Dr. Wells said.
In the tradition of novelty, the Hamburg High School would have a Career Academy where students could learn about construction trades, culinary arts, health occupations, scuba diving, tech academy and welding.
Students would leave school and have the ability to earn money and make a living right out of college.
Dr. Wells indicated an openness to waiting for a year to open the high school. Considering the flooding issues that the school is facing, Dr. Wells said it would be possible for the school to wait a year and the begin high school programs if given approval.
Mincer addressed the board by saying that his hope was that the school be given a chance to make a decision at the local level.
“We ask that, since we have the spending authority, you allow us to make the decision at our board table,” he said. “I am not sure our board is going to approve it this year, but we are going to look at what the numbers are.
“The flood set us back” Mincer said, adding that the flood was depressing. On a positive, he added, “There are so many federal funds coming down the pike that we could have a bright future.”
Mincer said the city feels like a housing development could be coming and said there were a lot of positives to consider.
State Board member Mike May opened a question and answer session by praising an excellent presentation before asking Dr. Wells what his main concerns would be going forward.
Dr. Wells said the main concerns would be enrollment due to the flood. He was also concerned sports offerings.
Sharing sports with Sidney would be an option and Hamburg has done so at the junior high level but Mincer said he didn’t know what future sharing programs would look like at this time.
A state board question was raised on what Hamburg would do to replace those hard to find teaching positions.
Dr. Wells said that offering a four-day work week would be attractive to candidates and that, due to Friday Maker Space classes, Hamburg offer four-day work weeks. Dr. Wells said Hamburg would also grow its own teachers and administrators. At current, the Hamburg school said they had found a principal who was going through classes and who could come soon to relieve an older retired administrator who was planning to help in 2019-2020.
For the next 10 years, Dr. Wells said staffing would be an issue, but it would not be an obstacle that could not be overcome.
“We’ve got to recruit people and stay on top of it,” he said.
Asked about the nearest career academy, Dr. Wells said there was one in Council Bluffs, 45 minutes away.
Dr. Wells said that the Hamburg school would be open to any cooperation locally which would allow students to learn at a neighboring school if a program was offered there.
Mainly though, the goal of the Hamburg school would be to be self sufficient.
State board members asked Williamson about any major concerns about Hamburg.
She indicated that offer and teach would be difficult and that Hamburg at current was still short a math and a science offering. Williamson also said Hamburg would need to firm up the plan with Iowa Western. Financial considerations and creating a stable school environment where students would not be shifted from district to district were also cited as concerns.
Dr. Wells said he expected to get a commitment from Iowa Western by April 30.
State board member Mary Ellen Miller spoke in glowing terms about Hamburg’s plan.
“I just want to applaud all of the creativeness and thinking that you put into this,” she said. “I think what you hear from us is that we recognize the risk., You do too.
“I live in one of the least populated counties,” Miller said. “We were collectively inundated with letters of support from your community. Those are key elements—having support.”
“The other thing that we recognize is that when a town loses its school, its gone. Its gone for good,” Miller said. “I have no qualms about supporting this. I just think what you have done is amazing and I want you to succeed.”
Miller said the outside the-box-thinking indicated a path that represented the future for what kids were going to learn to get them ready for success after high school.
A motion and a second were then laid upon the table to approve the high school proposal.
And discussion continued.
State board member Angela English said she was concerned that students seeking a more traditional school experience might not be challenged in the Hamburg program. English said she also was concerned with the impact a Hamburg High School could have on Sidney.
Looking back to the motion, Williamson said the motion could include language making for intensive monitoring by the state to make sure the accreditation worked. Williamson also said that the board would be able to address failings if the school did not meet requirements in the same way they do with any other district.
Tim Hood, superintendent of the Sidney and South Page schools, was then called upon to speak by the state board.
Hood started by saying that the offer and teach requirements were especially difficult to meet. He said good teachers were hard to find and that a resource of retired teachers from Missouri coming up to help appeared to be drying up.
Hood said Sidney had been advertising for an English teacher for sometime and had no applicants.
In terms of the Hamburg-Sidney arrangement, Hood said the relationship has been good.
“Our Sidney kids feel the Hamburg kids are part of them,” Hood said. “It’s been a great relationship for the kids.
“It’s been a great working relationship and the kids have been successful because of it. When Nishnabotna was closed, they (kids) needed a place to go and Sidney stepped up. This is about kids,” Hood said.
And, if Hamburg had its high school back?
“It will have a negative impact to Sidney if they are allowed to bring a high school back,” Hood said.
The Sidney superintendent said he wished Hamburg well on the Iowa Western arrangement, but noted that Sidney was unable to establish a program for welding with Iowa Western.
State board member Joshua Byrnes said he wanted to commend Hamburg for its efforts but that, after hearing from Sidney, he had concerns.
“Are we creating a situation where you have a struggling school district right now, and, by doing this, we are creating two struggling school districts,” Byrnes said.
The vote was difficult and one that Byrnes said he was struggling with as he was an advocate for rural schools.
“I am just worried about unintended consequences,” he said.
Byrnes said he also felt a bit rushed in voting at this time.
It was asked by a board member if Hamburg had gone through a natural disaster before. Mincer said Hamburg had been through many floods over the years but that the town was filled with resilient people.
Bettie Bolar, a state board member from Marshalltown, an Iowa community devastated by a tornado, said she could relate to Hamburg’s troubles with the flood and noted that she hoped the members of the community were not being “too optimistic” about the future.
English re-visited the topic of consequences for Sidney, noting that they would not have much time to make adjustments to their plan for next year if Hamburg got its high school back for 2019-20.
Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise and Williamson closed out the debate.
Wise said a negative outcome to the vote now would not preclude the Hamburg school from coming back in six months or a year to re-visit the topic.
And Williamson noted that, if the vote was in the affirmative, the School Improvement Team could provide monthly updates.
A roll call vote was then ordered with members voting as follows:
Brooke Axiotis, Board President, no
Michael Bearden, Board Vice President, no
Bettie Bolar, no
Joshua Byrnes, pass
Angela English, no
Michael Knedler, yes
Mike May, yes
Mary Ellen Miller, yes
Kimberly Wayne, no
The votes indicated that the proposal had been defeated 5-3. Byrnes, who had declined to vote, choosing to pass instead, then voted yes, making for a 5-4 final vote.