Residents of the Decorah and North Winneshiek School Districts will decide whether to consolidate when they go to the polls Tuesday, Feb. 6.
Voting will take place at Decorah High School for Decorah School District residents and North Winneshiek School for North Winneshiek School District residents. The polls will open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. An absolute majority is required for the vote to pass in each area. If the vote passes, the newly reorganized district will begin in July of 2019.

History
North Winneshiek Superintendent Tim Dugger sent a letter in November to North Winneshiek parents and patrons that offered the community detailed information regarding reorganization. In this letter, Dugger explained that from 2002 to 2017, Decorah and North Winneshiek were in a one-way sharing agreement for 9th through 12th grades with North Winneshiek students attending Decorah. The grade sharing allowed North Winneshiek to cut costs and therefore stay a solvent school district longer than expected. The letter also said that Decorah benefited from these additional students who contributed to the high school and the revenue that followed.
The North Winneshiek School District had hoped to delay potential consolidation but it has become difficult to remain financially stable, said Dugger. Faced with declining enrollment, low state aid, high transportation costs and increasing accreditation requirements, the rural school district approached Decorah in 2013 to start looking for the best options to serve the students long term, said Dugger.
The Decorah and North Winneshiek School Boards have spent numerous hours over several years studying options for the long-term stability of both schools, said Dugger. The stability comes in the form of a steady enrollment, which provides for a financially secure future. In recent years, Iowa School Districts have dealt with increasing financial strains and accreditation requirements said Decorah Community School District Superintendent Mike Haluska.
The North Winneshiek District in particular has seen a significant enrollment decline in the last 10 years. Conversely, Decorah’s enrollment has remained steady, Dugger’s letter said.
“The state of Iowa does not take poor planning lightly,” said Dugger. “They have, in fact, through the School Budget Review Committee, involuntarily closed two schools for failure to take appropriate measures to stay solvent.”
The Decorah and North Winneshiek Boards’ goal is to provide a secure and predictable education for each student and not have it come to the point where it’s in the hands of the state of Iowa, agreed both superintendents.
Currently, North Winn is a preschool through 6th grade school, and will remain that way through the 2018-2019 school year. North Winn hopes to consolidate with the Decorah School District for the fall of 2019.
“We are trying to provide a stable and predictable education for the North Winneshiek students. To constantly wonder what’s going to happen next with their education, that’s really tough,” Dugger said. “Neither Board is taking this decision lightly.”
“Everything we do as a board and as administrators is in the best interest of the kids,” agreed Decorah Superintendent Mike Haluska.

Votes
Three issues will be presented on the Feb. 6 ballot. The first vote will be on the consolidation of North Winneshiek School District into the Decorah School District.
The second proposition on the ballot is the revenue purpose statement. This statement says that a portion of the statewide sales tax will be used for property tax relief in 2023, 2024 and 2025. The approximate amount will be $270,000 for 2023, 2024 and 2025, which is what the former North Winneshiek District received annually.
Another issue residents will vote on will be the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL).
“What people need to keep in mind is that PPEL and the revenue purpose statement are both things the current Decorah School District already has, but we have to approve them again because we’re creating an entirely new district here,” said Decorah School Board President Ronald Fadness.
PPEL is a source of revenue for public school systems. It is a voter-approved tax of $1.34 per $1,000 on property valuation of home, agricultural and commercial property owners. These funds can be used for building and grounds upkeep and repairs, new construction, technology or other maintenance items. The funds cannot be used to pay teachers salaries, fund students programs, or pay for utilities. Simply, the funds will allow for the purchase of vehicles, computers etcetera, without dipping into the district’s general fund.
“If this is going to work, all three issues on the ballot need to be passed,” said Haluska. “The votes need a 50 percent plus one majority in each district to succeed.”

Employment
“When a reorganization takes place all of the teachers involved fall under the master contract of the larger of the two districts,” said Haluska.
Then, said Haluska, it all comes down to reduction in force (RIF) points. The District’s Master Contract states that when an agency must abolish positions, the RIF regulations determine whether an employee keeps his or her present position, or whether the employee has a right to a different position.
“RIF points take someone’s prior experience and calculates them into a formula and based on certification(s) those points qualify you for employment in a certain category,” Haluska said. “If consolidation does pass, RIF policy will decide who stays and who doesn’t. The decision on that is out of our hands, both districts are doing the best they can to do whatever we can to ease the transition.”

Other issues
“People are asking about the North Winneshiek building should consolidation happen and at this point that will be entirely in the hands of the new combined school board,” Dugger said.
According to Dugger, the new board will be formed based on population of districts. Decorah will appoint four members and North Winneshiek will appoint one. They will make all of the decisions regarding facilities, staffing and policy going forward.
Both superintendents did agree that in the face of a yes result for all three propositions on the Feb. 6 ballot, some things would run smoother.
“The bus routes will be more efficient,” Haluska said, “now that we don’t have the confinement of district boundaries that we do now.”
“This vote is putting the situation under local control. If any of the issues do not pass, the fate of the North Winneshiek School District will very likely be in the hands of the state of Iowa,” said Haluska.
If the vote fails in either district, North Winneshiek will eventually dissolve or close. Students will be distributed to either Howard-Winneshiek or Decorah School Districts, Dugger said.
“If the vote fails, there will likely not be an agreement between Decorah and Mabel-Canton going forward. In other words, unelected bureaucrats in Des Moines will follow state laws to make decisions for the students,” said Dugger. “In addition, current North Winneshiek employees will not have an opportunity for work in the newly formed district. And even worse, the tax incentive money will not come to the newly formed district. A no vote would deprive constituents of several years of property tax reduction incentives associated with the reorganization.”