Voters in the Van Buren County and Harmony school districts approved merging the two districts in a referendum Tuesday, and now administrators at both schools can get to work planning the future.
The two districts will merge in July 2019. In July of this year, a new school board will be formed consisting of members from both districts, who will spend a year preparing for the merger. The board will consist of three representatives from Van Buren, two from Harmony, and one at-large.
Superintendents in both districts were pleased with the vote. They mentioned that consolidating districts will save money by removing the need to duplicate services.
Harmony Community School Superintendent Kerry Phillips said transportation will probably change.
?We?ll share more,? he said. ?We have buses that go down the same road, so we?ll try to eliminate that sort of thing so we?re more efficient.?
Phillips said both districts are stable, and will become even more solvent through consolidation.
Relief for taxpayers
In a document sent to voters before the election, Phillips and Van Buren County School Superintendent Pam Ewell wrote that residents in both districts will likely see their property taxes drop as a result of the merger. The Van Buren school district?s tax levy is $12.23 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, and Harmony?s is $19.79. Phillips and Ewell wrote that their property taxes would drop to $11 or $12 per $1,000 if the vote passed.
This change is possible because the state provides tax relief for districts that consolidate. The relief lasts for three years, and drops each year until returning to the statewide uniform tax levy in the fourth year.
The two districts are already sharing a great deal. They began sharing athletic programs two years ago during the 2015-16 school year, and began whole-grade sharing of grades 7-12 last school year. One thing they will share after consolidation is a superintendent, and they have already agreed that will be Ewell.
In addition to being Harmony?s superintendent, Phillips is principal of Harmony?s elementary school, and is superintendent for the Mormon Trail Community School District in Humeston. Van Buren and Harmony will remain separate one more school year, though Phillips hasn?t decided if he will remain as superintendent for that year.
Ewell said she did not anticipate reducing staff after the merger. Phillips said the new district will probably reduce staff over time through attrition, though he doesn?t foresee immediate changes to staffing.
Ewell said the new district will continue to operate three school buildings, two in what is now the Van Buren district and one in Harmony. The two in Van Buren include the junior high-high school in Keosauqua and the elementary school in Douds, while Harmony has an elementary school north of Farmington in what was once Harmony?s junior and senior high school.
?We do not yet know the configuration of grades or classes of students, and the newly formed interim school board will work with administration, staff and parents to make the best decision possible for the configuration of grade levels and classes for each building,? Ewell said.
Phillips said there?s ?no choice? but to keep Harmony?s elementary building open because there?s no room for them in any of Van Buren?s buildings.
?There are over 300 kids in the Douds building, and they?re full. The building is maxxed out,? he said. ?We have room for our 165 [elementary students] here at Farmington. I?d predict some of the kids on the east side of their district will come here [to Farmington] because it?s closer.?
Ewell and Phillips explained in their letter that the decision to merge was necessitated by the falling enrollment at Harmony. As recently as the 2001-02 school year, Harmony had a net enrollment of 514 students, with 28 open-enrolling to other districts and 16 open-enrolling in. For the current school year, Harmony has 346 students in its district, but 127 are open-enrolling out with only four open-enrolling in. After subtracting the 92 who go to Van Buren through whole-grade sharing, the district is left with only 131 students.
?When enrollment declines, it becomes very difficult to offer and teach all of the courses required by the state as well as to secure appropriately licensed teachers for each class,? the superintendents wrote. ?Harmony was forced to share a great number of teachers and staff with nearby school districts during the past several years. This becomes very difficult for students, staff, and parents with lack of access to teachers on a regular basis, dissimilar calendars with nearby schools, and scheduling students.?