The Decorah School Board met on Monday, December 11, for their regular meeting. One particular item on the agenda brought in a standing room only crowd – the board was to discuss whether or not to renew its enrollment agreement with Mabel-Canton.
The origins of this situation date back to when the former North Winn School District – which covered territory between Decorah and the Minnesota border – ended instruction for grades 9-12. Students were given the option to attend Decorah’s high school, or cross the border into Minnesota to attend school in Mabel. For many families, the M-C school was much closer to their homes, while also providing the small school atmosphere they had valued at North Winn. When North Winn fully consolidated with Decorah beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, the Decorah board opted to continue the agreement for five years. This would allow older Iowa students enrolled in Mabel-Canton to graduate there.
Those five years are now coming to a close, however there are still a total of 27 Iowa students of all ages enrolled at M-C. Like open enrollment within a state, this special interstate agreement means education dollars for those 27 students follow them to their chosen district, resulting in a financial loss for Decorah. If the Decorah board declines to renew the agreement, those students will either have to attend Decorah schools beginning in fall 2024, or pay tuition to attend M-C.
The meeting began with public comment, during which several parents and kids spoke. Convenience and proximity to M-C versus Decorah were common themes, as well as family and friend connections to M-C and the Mabel area. However the most powerful testimony came from students describing what attending M-C means to them. An elementary schooler named Olivia spoke of her friendships at M-C that she would lose if she had to move. Tylar, a sophomore, cried as she spoke of the activities she participates in, and what it means to attend a small school where she “doesn’t feel like a number.” Several students expressed that they feel much more comfortable and welcome at M-C. Students and parents alike spoke of the opportunities and teacher focus they get at a small school. Many felt Decorah was putting money over what is best for kids.
M-C Superintendent Gary Kuphal addressed the board, reiterating his position from previous conversations that this situation would “die of its own accord” over time, as currently participating kids grow up. He questioned the board’s assumption that they will see many additional funds, as most of the affected families have indicated to him that they are committed to finding a way not to send their kids to Decorah.
Board member Carole Sand described that according to Iowa law, they do not have the ability to limit the agreement only to older students, which would allow it to naturally phase out as those students graduate. Families with young kids have continued to enroll in M-C despite having no guarantee the agreement would continue. Board members feared that by extending the agreement, new students would continue to enroll in M-C and they would be back in this situation again in a few years.
Referencing the board meeting five years ago, when the agreement was made, member Brian Petersburg explained that the board never intended this arrangement to continue in perpetuity, and that that was clear at the time. He stated that Decorah made every effort to communicate to families that the agreement was slated to sunset after the 2023-2024 school year.
Member Ronald Fadness gave an earnest defense of the board’s motives. The responsibility of the Decorah School Board is to provide the best possible education for all who live in the district. Money lost by Decorah to M-C is needed in Decorah, and a little over $1 million has been lost over the past five years as a result of this agreement. He felt that rather than putting money over kids, as had been suggested, the board was in fact fulfilling its core responsibility to the more than 1,000 kids in the Decorah School District.
Concern about future revenues for Decorah is especially high in light of recent legislation passed by Iowa politicians, which in the coming years will transfer significant amounts of public school funding to private schools. Board member Petersburg described this decision as the hardest he has been faced with in his time on the board. With a heaviness in his voice, he acknowledged the pain and disruption this change would cause to the affected students and their families. Sand expressed that this had been “weighing on her brain” for some time. The board left no doubt that they appreciate the gravity of forcing kids, some only a few years from graduating, to change schools. However, as they spoke it gradually became clear by the way they framed their words, that there would be no motion to renew the agreement. With no action taken, the agreement is on track to expire at the end of the 2023-2024 school year.