By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
After more than a year of studying, planning and debating, residents of the Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale school districts have voted to consolidate.
The vote was closest in Le Center, 551 to 501, where residents will lose their high school but retain a K-8 facility. In Lonsdale, the vote was 221-132; and in Montgomery, which is in the midst of designing and constructing a new high school, the vote was 717-126.
All three communities needed to pass the measure in order for consolidation to proceed.
Matt Helgerson, the Le Center co-superintendent who will assume the top position for the new district when the two combine for the 2012-13 school year, could hardly conceal his relief during a brief phone conversation after the results were final.
“I’m so happy for the students,” Helgerson said. “I can’t believe it. We had a good plan and we worked hard to get it out.”
The consolidation effort began in earnest in the summer of 2010 and represents the final outcome of a study conducted by the South Central Service Cooperative. Ed Waltman, a former superintendent who now works as an SCSC consultant, directed the study that analyzed a large volume of data on each district, from contractual information and course offerings to debt schedules and enrollment forecasts.
The districts will now merge in time for the 2012-13 school year, potentially becoming the biggest school in the Minnesota River Conference with an enrollment nearing 1,800.
The districts will share both their bond debts and operating levies and Le Center taxpayers will assume one-third of the cost (about $10 million) for Montgomery-Lonsdale’s new high school.
Taxes will either decrease or remain steady for property owners in Montgomery and Lonsdale; in Le Center, homeowners will see no increase but taxes will rise on commercial and agricultural property.
When the newly formed district opens, it will also receive additional aid from the state for two years to help cover such costs as new textbooks and athletic uniforms — $200 per pupil the first year and $100 per pupil the second year.
Waltman praised the districts’ exhaustive process that included several joint board meetings and about a half-dozen community information meetings.
“I really commend the school boards and the administrators for the process,” Waltman said. “They’ve really put a lot of time into this.”
For those favoring consolidation, the arguments came down largely to money and opportunities for students.
Both districts have cut staff and programs deeply in recent years. And both have operating costs well below the state average of $10,120 per pupil (Montgomery-Lonsdale spends about $7,994 per pupil; Le Center spends about $8,765).
With more than $500,000 in budget reductions over the past two years, Le Center already has cut choir, speech and junior varsity teams. Electives, officials said, are at the slimmest possible levels.
With consolidation, however, Le Center students could access dozens of additional electives and extracurricular activities.
That argument, said Le Center residents Ron and Patti Germscheid, represented the decision point for their “yes” votes.
“The future of America is in education” Ron said.
Patti, a former teacher herself in another district, sounded a note of inevitability shared by many voters.
“It’s an emotional decision,” she said. “Nobody wants this, but it’s a sign of the times.”
Consolidations, of course, are nothing new.
They have taken place with varying levels of frequency throughout the last century as Americans have gradually shifted from living in rural areas to living in cities and urban centers. Since 1938, the number of school districts in the United States has declined by 90 percent. In Minnesota alone, the number of school districts has declined by more than 20 percent since 1990. And, in this area, a wave of consolidations took place in the mid-1990s that dissolved nearly 30 districts into just 11.
For John Ballman, who voted against the measure, consolidation represents a permanent solution to what may be a temporary problem. The lifelong Le Center resident and farmer who graduated from the high school in 1943 said he’s worried what may happen if residents change their minds.
“If we decide in 10 or 15 years down the road that we want to go back, we can’t,” he said. “We’ll be done with it and it will be over.”
Now that the vote is over, Helgerson said the districts will begin organizing for the merger. Soon, he said, school officials and community stakeholders will begin meeting to determine the next steps of the transition.
“There is a lot of work still to be done,” he said. “Energizing work.”