WEST UNION — Secondary students in the Valley and North Fayette districts began attending school together in the fall of 2013. Today the two districts are making it a permanent arrangement as they merge into one.
The name of the new district will be familiar, since it is already used by their combined middle and high schools: North Fayette Valley Community Schools.
Students and residents of the towns that make up the new district — West Union, Hawkeye, Fayette, Clermont, Elgin and Wadena — won’t see much of a change beyond that adjustment in name.
“We’ve been whole-grade sharing for five years, and so most things are going to stay the same,” said Superintendent Duane Willhite, who has been the top administrator for both districts during that time. He noted there will be a transfer of property to the new entity and the Board of Education will no longer be an interim board. “Other than these business practices, the public’s not going to see anything different.”
Like many rural districts, North Fayette and Valley had been seeing declines in enrollment for some time. But there was a small uptick in the number of kindergarten through 12th-grade students last fall, with eight more enrolled in the districts than the year before. Combined, they had 1,130 students.
The increase was unusual, though. “On the North Fayette side, we haven’t had an increase in students over the last 23 years,” said Willhite, before fall 2017.
Residents voted for the merger in a February 2017 referendum, with 95 percent approving reorganization. “We’re very happy that the public has supported the election and the coming together of our two districts,” he said.
The districts received an extra 10 percent in per pupil funding from the state of Iowa for students bused between them because they signed an agreement saying they would consider reorganization within five years. Now that the districts have merged, the extra funding “does continue into the new district for three more years,” said Willhite.
“There’s also incentives for our populace, because the combined property tax for the district is reduced by a dollar,” he added. “That is gradually reduced over three years.” The state will subsidize property taxes at the rate of $1 per $1,000 of taxable value the first year, reducing it to 75 cents the second year and 50 cents the third.
Two other merged school districts are being created in Iowa with the new fiscal year, according to the Iowa Department of Education. The Alta and Aurelia school districts are combining as are the Odebolt-Arthur and Battle Creek-Ida Grove school districts.
As a result, the total number of school districts in the state is dropping to 330. Over the decades, consolidations have caused a decline in the number of Iowa districts. In 2000-01, for example, there were 374 school districts.
Willhite said with the North Fayette Valley merger, the district will return to having grades six through eight at its middle school. When the whole-grade sharing began, sixth-grade students were moved down to the elementary schools. Having only seventh and eighth grades at the building simplified tuition payments required between the districts when they were separate.
Along with the middle school in Elgin and the high school in West Union, the combined district will continue to have three elementary schools. Valley Elementary in Elgin will serve kindergarten through fifth grade, West Union Elementary will serve kindergarten through third grade, and Fayette Elementary will serve grades four and five.
Members on what had been an interim school board with seats designated for each district will remain in place until the 2019 election. The new board will have seven director districts but each seat will be elected at-large.
Along with his job, Willhite said the two districts were already finding efficiencies with combined positions for business manager, curriculum director, buildings and grounds director and transportation director. But the grade sharing and the merger have always been about preserving what the districts have rather than cost reductions.
“Instead of looking for cutting costs, we got to rebuild our curriculum pretty significantly,” he noted. “We feel like we’re coming together for the betterment of the students rather than to save money.”