When schools close
Manilla faces an identity crisis with the loss of its school next year, but it's not alone in the fight. Elsewhere, communities have rallied.
March 28, 2014
On March 6, the IKM-Manning School Board voted unanimously to close the classroom sections of its school building in Manilla. The building, which turns 100 next year, will continue to be used for junior high sporting events, as a central office and as a bus stop.
Harsh words fly in a packed auditorium.
Fingers point in accusations of bias.
Calls for community cooperation are met with bitter dissent.
The scene is familiar in rural Iowa as shrinking populations force school districts to make the financial decision to consolidate or close school buildings - often the pride of the small towns in which they reside.
Earlier this month, this scene played out in Manning.
IKM-Manning school board members voted unanimously on March 6 to close the classroom sections of the middle school in Manilla, a move that will save the district roughly $400,000 in annually recurring general-fund costs.
It could also save the district nearly $1 million in building funds - the widely disputed price tag an outside consulting firm placed on renovations it believes would be necessary in the Manilla building over the next decade.
"It means we're dead," said Marjorie Benge, one of Manilla's 776 residents and owner of Mrs. B's Beauty Shop, the day after the vote.
They thought they had a few more years, she said.
The 2014-15 school year will mark the school's 100th anniversary - but only the gym and the central office will remain in use. The middle school students will attend class in Manning.
The Manilla building will continue to serve as a bus stop - but that didn't stop parents of more than 40 students from submitting open-enrollment forms to remove their children from the IKM-Manning school system next year.
Manilla residents contend that their leaders did not receive a fair hearing - that cost estimates were inflated and the board lacked transparency and failed to openly consider Manilla Mayor Pat Wuestewald's proposal to keep all three buildings open or to close the district's school in Irwin instead.
In a last-ditch effort to address these contentions, Wuestewald threatened that the city and local utilities company would sue the district.
"There is no best decision in this kind of deal for the community," said resident Brian Lingle, general manager of Allied Genetics in Manilla, of the board vote.
But whether a legal fight would be the best use of the city's financial resources - or worth the risk of further strain on relationships with its neighbors - Lingle was less sure.
"I think when you have something in your town and it's good, then you should fight to keep it there," he said.
"There's a price at which that all doesn't make sense - who knows what that is?"
In the past 50 years, Iowa has lost 120 school districts.
That's a 22-percent decline from 1965, according to Iowa Department of Education data. There are 338 districts today.
As districts consolidate, the number of school buildings used within each district decreases as well - leaving communities across the state facing the loss of their schools.
The closing of a school is a "signal of a community in transition," said rural sociologist and Iowa State University sociology professor Paul Lasley.
Area residents' recollections of more farm families with more children are confirmed by the numbers. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 140,354 farms in Iowa in 1969 - a total that fell nearly 10 percent per decade to 88,631 by 2012.
While the size of farms grew, the average family size shrank, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 1970, nearly 42 percent of Iowa households boasted children under age 18. In 2012, only about 28 percent of households included school-aged children.
This confluence of factors results in declining enrollment, a reality that hits rural districts particularly hard - with state funding tied to this decreasing enrollment, school boards across the state have found themselves needing to cut costs.
In many cases, these efforts result in the closure of a school building - a measure that reduces expenditures on utilities, maintenance, staff and transportation.
But it is never an easy decision, said Lasley.
"Nobody closes a school gleefully," he said. "No one wants to close a school under their watch."
A school cannot save a small town, said Peter Orazem, an economics professor at Iowa State.
"If a school is the biggest employer, it signals a weak economy," he said.
Private-sector jobs must exceed those of the public sector - the government sector cannot be taxed to fund itself, Orazem explained.
But while economic concern is present, it is not the reason communities "fight like hell" to save their schools, said University of Northern Iowa education professor Tim Gilson.
The fight is fueled by fear.
"It's the emotion," Gilson said. "If we lose the school, what will attract families and employees to live in our area?"
Lasley agrees that the most significant impact a school closing has on a community is the loss of identity.
"Schools are often one of the last social institutions to close," he said. "It causes people to recall all the losses a community has experienced.
"It forces them to face the harsh reality of how their community has changed."
Acknowledging a school's lack of economic viability doesn't assuage the pain, Lasley stressed.
But the loss does not have to foreshadow the community's general demise, Lasley and Gilson agreed. Though Gilson contends that no other entity can fully replace a school in the community's psyche, Lasley argues that its loss can motivate leaders to address underlying issues - people don't migrate away from small towns because they don't like the atmosphere, but because they can't find any jobs, he said.
It can also challenge a community to see the school as a continued benefit, he added, to redefine itself and find a new way to use the building.
AUBURN: THE BEDROOM COMMUNITY
Orazem describes the "nexus" of a small town's strength as its ability to provide access to higher wages in an urban labor market, while offering cheaper housing and a lower cost of living.
The city of Auburn - which lost a public school in 1987 as well as a private Catholic school - has embraced this identity as a "bedroom community," said former mayor Larry Finley.
Located fewer than 15 miles from Carroll, Lake View and Lake City, Auburn - population 322 - boasts a quiet atmosphere, a couple eateries, a few niche businesses - sewing, welding, gun and woodworking shops, to name a few - and an attractive streetscape, Finley said.
"Our Main Street is very nice compared to some other small towns our size," he said.
The street project was completed about three years ago with financial assistance from the Roy Reiman family. The community has also pulled together to build a new fire station in recent years. It is also home to a robust soccer program, thanks to a recent influx of younger families.
When the public school closed, the city tried to convert it into a community center. A few square dances were held there, but in the end, the heating costs were too high. So the city opted to sell.
In 1990, the old Catholic school was purchased by Krudico, a wholesale water treatment company.
Todd Partridge, owner of the Breda logistics company Move-It, moved into the old public school in 2000, renovating the third floor as a private residence for his family of seven; the second floor for an offshoot of his shipping business, aptly christened Shipping Source; and the bottom level as a recording studio for his roots, rock and blues band, King of the Tramps.
"For someone in the right situation, it's a great solution," Partridge said of the decision to purchase the old school building. "I was driving by and thought, 'Wow, that empty space would be cool to develop.'
"You can do things you wouldn't be able to in a normal house."
Partridge purchased the building for $1. He said it was in great shape, minus some initial signs of neglect - a few broken windows, a leaky roof.
The key is to make a decision to sell or demolish sooner than later, Partridge advised communities.
"The cost of demolition goes up every day," he said. "Don't settle for someone who wants to store hay."
BREDA: ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT
Breda was one of the few rural areas in western Iowa to show population growth between the 2000 and 2010 censuses - population 477 to 483 - an accomplishment leaders have not taken for granted.
Mayor Mike Schwabe credits local businesses "born and raised" in Breda - such as Snappy Popcorn, Move-It, Western Iowa Networks, Tiefenthaler Ag-Lime and Toyne Inc. fire-truck and emergency-apparatus manufacturer, of which he is part owner - for the city's success in becoming an employment community.
Schwabe estimates that as many people commute into Breda each morning as leave to go to work.
He also credits past council members and mayors for investing in the infrastructure that paved the way for its present.
But it wasn't an attitude that was born overnight.
Breda, home to one of the area's first Catholic schools in 1884, lost its high school in 1979 when St. Bernard High School merged with Kuemper High School, and then lost its grade school in 2003 when Christ the King and Holy Trinity Schools were merged into the Kuemper Catholic System in Carroll.
The community fears at the time mirrored those stirring now in Manilla, said Cindy Masching, St. Bernard Catholic Church secretary.
"Schools bring people to town," agreed Father Gary Snyder, St. Bernard pastor. "Particularly in smaller, rural towns - a ball game brings an entire community together."
But the majority of the community stuck together, Masching said. Families stayed and continued to support their neighbors' businesses and city initiatives.
Breda is now home to nearly 60 businesses ranging from local salons and restaurants to million-dollar manufacturing and transportation companies. The latest high-speed Internet connections are available. Outdoor options include local parks, a golf course and a central location on the Sauk recreation trail, which brings even more people into the community, she said.
The original grade school was torn down in 1980. Two houses now stand in its place.
The former high school was taken over by the St. Bernard Church. The lower portion was partially renovated into the Mary Nieland Center to host meetings, birthday and anniversary parties and other community gatherings. The gym is rented out for volleyball leagues, basketball practices and baseball training camps. For several years, the upper floor has been transformed into a haunted house, drawing nearly 2,000 people into the community each Halloween.
Today, city leaders continue to work to ensure development efforts do not stagnate and that goals remain high, Schwabe said, adding that he would love to see a gas station in Breda. In the meantime, recruitment efforts are focused on younger families - park and pool improvements, playground upgrades and development of the area around the bike trail.
Schwabe also hopes to see businesses promote "living locally" to their employees.
He stressed the need for organizations and individuals alike to face reality, but maintain a positive attitude.
"Go at it with positive thinking," Masching agreed. "You'll probably succeed."
SCRANTON: THE COMMUNITY CENTER
Scranton's school closure in 2008 was a "blow to the community," said Dawn Rudolph, former mayor and school employee and current Greene County supervisor.
But the town found a way to use the school that would continue bringing people into the community.
The city of Scranton, population 557, purchased the building for $1 in 2010 and began a series of renovation projects to convert the school into a community center.
In 2013, the center hosted more than 100 events - including youth and adult sports programs, Nerf wars, business rentals, city meetings, teen nights and Memorial Day services - racking up more than 1,500 volunteer hours. The building also serves as the bus stop for students attending Jefferson-Scranton, and Rudolph hopes to start an after-school program - the center already has pool, pingpong and Foosball tables, as well as a computer lab. But for now, she collects donated coloring books and puzzles to entertain the younger students as they wait.
Most of the remodeling projects, such as refinishing the gym floor and replacing the mats, have been funded with $15,000 in local grants and roughly $50,000 in donations. A kitchen remodel is slated for this summer.
One of the old classrooms has been transformed into an alumni memorabilia room. An annual nostalgia night featuring six-on-six basketball, homemade soup and a country band is one of the center's most successful fundraisers, Rudolph said.
For 2014, the city is estimating the operating costs at $24,000. An anticipated $25,000 in rental revenue, fundraisers and recreational programs will help the city cover the costs.
One such rec offering - a dodgeball league - brought 130 participants from a three-county area into Scranton on a Saturday night in early March.
The Greene County school district gave the city two years' notice before closing the school, providing time to seek community feedback on a trial run, said Rudolph. It has also committed to a 10-year rental agreement with Scranton to use the gym for sports practices and games.
In 2012, it demolished the original 1915 three-story portion of the building when the city of Scranton decided it could not use it. Leaders had considered turning the entire school into apartments, but the plan was too costly.
"We were dreaming big," Rudolph said.
Jefferson-Scranton schools superintendent Tim Christensen cited the school board's efforts as part of its responsibility to its communities.
A district just can't justify operating a program - or a building - that isn't essential, he said. But eventually that empty building falls back on the city - and nobody wants that.
"It's just being a good neighbor," he said.
But what happens when a community already has a recreation center, a library, a meeting hall?
This question was thrust into the spotlight last September as members of the Southern Calhoun School Board debated whether to sell its Lohrville building or bulldoze it.
The Rockwell City-Lytton and Southern Calhoun districts will officially consolidate into the South Central Calhoun School District on July 1. The Lohrville elementary building, closed in 2012, was the third closed in the two districts.
Southern Calhoun closed its Lincoln Elementary building in Lake City in 2007, and Rockwell City-Lytton closed its Lytton Middle School building in 2009. Both buildings were sold to local residents, the former to Larry Waters for $22,000 and the latter to Mike Penniman for $10,000.
The school board received two bids for the Lohrville building, but one bidder was a felon and registered sex offender and another owned a string of derelict properties.
"I would absolutely have loved to repurpose it," said Tami Mohr, fourth-term councilwoman in Lohrville, and one of the most vocal advocates for demolition.
But a sale of the contents had stripped the building of many of its valuable components, and the small rural city simply lacked the resources to renovate the former K-12 building that spans an entire city block, Mohr explained. Besides, Lohrville already has a recreation center with a gymnasium, a new emergency-services building with a large community-gathering room and a recently expanded library.
Like Auburn, Lohrville, population 368, has embraced its status as a bedroom community, sitting 30 miles from both Carroll and Fort Dodge.
Demolition, Mohr said, would prevent the abandoned building from becoming an eyesore on Main Street, transforming the lot into green space instead.
In February, the school board accepted a $363,056 bid to demolish the structure. The site should be clear by July.
MANILLA: AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The town's loss of its school building was likely inevitable, residents Benge and Lingle agree.
Still, Benge doesn't understand the "sudden push" to close the school.
"None of us like it," Benge said.
Having traveled extensively through the Western Corn Belt for his work, Lingle has seen a lot of school buildings standing empty - it is not a future he wants to see for Manilla.
Down the street, retired farmers discuss the vote over coffee, struggling to articulate their town's identity, wondering what comes next.
In a phone call with the Daily Times Herald Wednesday night, Wuestewald said the city has not decided if it will pursue legal action and remains in contact with its attorney.
He also confirmed that no public meetings have been held in Manilla to seek community input on the possible litigation or to discuss future possibilities for the school building.
Not privy to the specific details of the Manilla case, ISU sociology professor Lasley expressed doubt that legal action would have the desired effect - though city leaders might receive more attention for their arguments, it is unlikely to change the underlying financial factors impacting the district.
"It shows the depth of emotion and concern people have about a community, but it also shows how fractionalized communities become," he said of the threats of litigation. "It tears the social fabric."
The worst-case scenario would be compounding that community sadness by watching the building fall apart and become a symbol of decline, Lasley said.
But it is not too late for Manilla to avoid this fate.
Lasley encourages communities facing the loss of a school to turn its closing into a celebration - a way to move on while recalling the town's past successes, or an opportunity to prompt discussion on how the building or grounds could once again be transformed into an asset.
"It's so challenging and so controversial," Lasley said. "But it's just the reality of the times we live in."