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A-R looks westward

By Staff | Jul 2, 2010

After trying five years to foster a whole-grade sharing or other arrangement with North Kossuth and Sentral school districts, it appears that patience is growing very thin for Armstrong-Ringsted Community School District Board of Education members.

Wednesday night, the board had a soul-searching session about future sharing possibilities. While the district has offered repeated overtures for sharing with North Kossuth and Sentral, the reception has been lukewarm at best.

When the district knocked once on the door at Estherville Lincoln Central earlier this spring, the door swung wide open.

Recommendations by Iowa Department of Education representatives Del Hoover and Barbara Byrd, who made a site visit to the district this spring, prompted calls for action by a number of A-R board members Wednesday.

Jim Boyer, A-R board member, said he thought continued pursuit of sharing talks with North Kossuth and Sentral is a waste of time. Boyer focused his comments on North Kossuth Superintendent Mike Landstrum.

“He was not interested,” Boyer said flatly. “I don’t know if it’s (sharing with North Kossuth and Sentral) worth pursuing. Our best option is Estherville Lincoln Central.”

The three districts have met to discuss a variety of sharing options over the past few weeks – first at Swea City June10 and later in Armstrong June 23. The next tri-district board meeting will be 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 21 at Sentral.

There appeared to be a little progress at the last tri-district meeting in Armstrong, with some A-R board members saying they could give up the high school to Swea City and Landstrum floating an option of north-south high-school campuses – one in Armstrong and one at Sentral. Landstrum’s suggestion also called for grades six through eight attending Swea City with all communities retaining their elementaries.

A-R Principal Matt Berninghaus had footed the idea of east-west high-school campuses at Armstrong and Swea City at the June 10 meeting in Swea City, a proposal intended mainly to start discussions. Landstrom offered concerns about the proposal, pointing to an existing five-year whole-grade-sharing agreement, the second year of which was just completed.

“I think we need to pursue Estherville Lincoln Central as aggressively as we have North Sentral Kossuth,” said board member Jen Von Bank at Wednesday night’s meeting in Armstrong. “I haven’t come away from the meetings feeling giddy either. We owe it to them (ELC) to see how it could possibly work.”

Von Bank said ELC district patrons had indicated to her they felt as though A-R had been using ELC as a bargaining chip to push through sharing with North Kossuth and Sentral.

Boyer also observed that Landstrum seemed to think that A-R should be negotiating only with North Kossuth and Sentral – and not ELC.

“I think what we’re forgetting is we’re not Emmetsburg,” said Von Bank. “We don’t have a large city in the middle of this (the three districts of A-R, North Kossuth and Sentral). “We have to look at the trend (of shrinking rural school districts). We want to be realistic about it.”

“I’m not hearing much support for it (ELC),” said Deb Obbink, business manger and board secretary.

“No matter what option we choose, we’re going to lose some kids,” Boyer said. “But we could gain some kids.”

Von Bank said she wished A-R district patrons understood better that sharing talks with North Kossuth and Sentral had stalled.

“I don’t think our constituents understand that,” Von Bank said. “It’s just not going anywhere.”

“It’s a fractured board (North Kossuth) and they don’t agree,” said Rod Foster, A-R board president. However, Foster added, “I actually came out of the last meeting a little more positive.”

Board members agreed it was not their intent to mislead ELC. “Our next step is Estherville,” said board member Howard Taylor.

“The next meeting (with North Kossuth and Sentral) I think is the make it or break it,” said Von Bank.

The board also discussed bringing in an impartial third party – a suggestion in a feasibility report by the Iowa Department of Education – to foster sharing discussions with North Kossuth and Sentral.

“I think we should offer the same thing to ELC. We have to,” Boyer said.

“I think the response we get from the other districts on this is going to be part of our answer,” said Von Bank.

“So we want to do the same thing with ELC with a facilitator?” asked Superintendent Randy Collins, asking for the board’s opinion.

The board agreed.

The board agreed to seek out a possible facilitator for sharing discussions from a number of sources – Von Bank seeking a facilitator from the medical field, Boyer from Farm Bureau resources and Collins tapping Del Hoover, one of the Iowa Department of Education consultants who did the feasibility report. Foster said he would contact the ELC board president to continue discussions.

Collins asked the board if its preference was for the plan Berninghaus presented for the east-west high schools at the tri-district meeting June 10 in Swea City, and the board agreed.

The three districts- Armstrong-Ringsted, North Kossuth and Sentral – will float their preferences at the next tri-district board meeting 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 21 at Sentral.