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Drop in enrollment forces tough decisions in rural district

When enrollment drops in rural areas, schools are more likely to be consolidated or merged with other small districts, says Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, an expert on these trends.

Located in eastern Iowa, the rural Central Community School District comprises just 1,500 students in four schools. Over the past two years, enrollment has dropped by 66 students. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but in a rural district like ours, that roughly 5 percent enrollment decrease is substantial,” says Superintendent Dan Peterson.

Many parents in the district work in the Quad Cities, about 20 miles away. The economic downturn led several families to move closer to their jobs to cut commutes and avoid high gas prices. Rural districts like Central also used to serve farming families that commonly had six or more children. But family farms have been replaced by corporations and people are having fewer children, Peterson says.

The district was forced to cut about $800,000 from next year’s budget, partially due to enrollment decline and less financial support from the Iowa legislature, Peterson says.

To cut costs, Central CSD has combined positions and offered early retirement to teachers. It is also outsourcing technology and vehicle management functions. The district also increased class sizes, though administrators are trying to keep K2 classrooms under 22 students, and the upper grade classrooms under 25. Central CSD also reduced time for art, music, and PE.

“You have to have the courage to question things that maybe no one else will want to question, whether it’s certain programs that have been in existence for years, where you have to make tough calls,” Peterson says. “But as superintendents, we have to stand up and make the right decisions for our kids, and at the end of the day, say it’s the best we can do.”