ANDREW, Iowa (AP) — Tristan Sikkema starts his day at Andrew Elementary School.
As a physical education teacher, the Andrew, Iowa, native plays games with the students to get them active.
At about 10:30 a.m., Sikkema packs up and drives southeast down Iron Bridge Road — the road on which he grew up.
About 20 minutes later, he arrives at Easton Valley Junior/Senior High School in Preston.
There, he walks not into the gymnasium but the computer lab.
Sikkema is the school’s computer science teacher.
Every day, Sikkema switches back and forth between these two teaching positions for two school districts. Although he is not a fan of the drive, he appreciates the diversity of his workday.
“It’s a good breakup in the middle of the day,” Sikkema told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “I get to teach two subjects that I enjoy.”
The arrangement allows him to provide a necessary service for both school districts.
Chris Fee is the superintendent of both the Andrew and Easton Valley community school districts.
He said Sikkema is the lone teacher among the two districts with the credentials to provide computer science training for students. Instead of hiring someone else to teach computer science, the two school districts took a more efficient route.
“We’re able to save money by having him work these half-days,” Fee said. “It allows us to bring that necessary programming without adding to our costs.”
Easton Valley and Andrew are among the school districts that, as they face declining enrollment and as a result, falling state funding, continue to work to find creative ways to deliver programming for their students.
Easton Valley’s enrollment fell from 495 students in 2013 to 450 in 2018 — a 9 percent drop. Over that same time frame, Andrew School District’s enrollment fell from 162 students to 136, a decline of 16 percent.
The two districts have shared a superintendent since July 2014. Fee is in his third year serving in that role.
Officials with both districts created the arrangement to reduce costs for both entities — both because the salary is split and also because of state-offered incentives for sharing the position — but it doesn’t stop with the superintendent. The districts also currently share a human relations director, a business manager and a transportation director. State incentives are offered for those roles as well.
Fee said the need to continue to find ways to increase efficiency has not subsided in the past five years.
“We’ve been seeing a continuing downward trend,” he said. “The question that is always on our mind is how do we keep operating efficiently despite the declining enrollment.”
The decline in students has prompted some school districts to consolidate.
In the 2000-01 school year, there were 374 school districts in Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Education. The total now stands at 330.
The reduction includes Preston and East Central school districts, which consolidated and were renamed Easton Valley in 2012.
While most local school officials said school district consolidation is treated as a last resort, many already are working toward cooperative arrangements with other districts as a means to ensure their respective survival.
Big farms, small schools
For many of these school districts, declining enrollment is largely out of their control, as it is mostly the result of generally declining populations in rural communities.
West Delaware County Community School District, with schools in Manchester, Iowa, has experienced a 6 percent drop in enrollment since 2013.
Not surprisingly, the communities from which the district draws students also have decreasing populations. For example, the population of the largest — Manchester — dropped by 3.2 percent from April 2010 to July 2017, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Delaware County’s population has dropped 3.4 percent in that same time frame.
West Delaware Superintendent Kristen Rickey said the district historically served the students of families of surrounding farms, but the decline in family size and the growing size of farms has had a significant impact.
“For the past eight years, we have had declining enrollment,” Rickey said. “Farms are becoming larger and larger, and that’s having an impact on us.”
Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the Benton School District has experienced a 20 percent decline in enrollment since 2013. Superintendent Todd Bastian points to similar circumstances.
“We used to have a lot of small farms in the countryside,” he said. “These were big farm families sending five to six kids. You just don’t see that anymore.”
The decline in enrollment has a direct impact on them financially. A large part of funding for school districts is per-pupil state aid.
Southwestern Wisconsin Community School District, based in Hazel Green, has had a nearly 10 percent enrollment decline since 2013.
Superintendent John Costello said the school district receives $9,460 per student from the state.
This year, the school district lost $150,000 in aid because of declining student enrollment, compared to last year.
“We’re losing that funding, but we still need to maintain that same level of programming,” Costello said. “It puts us in a position where we need to become very creative.”
School districts with declining enrollment have developed several strategies to reduce costs while still maintaining programming.
Some save money by having administrators and teachers wear multiple hats, such as teaching multiple subjects.
School districts also have looked to work together to deliver programming.
Rickey said West Delaware School District collaborates with surrounding districts to provide specialized classes and programs.
This semester, students from Edgewood-Colesburg Community School District travel to West Delaware High School for welding classes.
For many of these small districts, specialized programs such as welding would be impossible to maintain individually. Along with the required investment of supplies and tools, interest in certain school districts sometimes doesn’t exceed five students.
Rickey said agreements like the one between West Delaware and Edgewood-Colesburg allow for them to provide specialized programs to students at a reasonable cost.
“We want to offer students the highest quality of education,” Rickey said. “When we’re collaborating with these other school districts, we’re able to fill a classroom for classes that we usually couldn’t by ourselves.”