State Board votes to deny high school program at Hamburg

Kirt Manion
Hamburg students attended the state board meeting last week.

An Iowa Department of Education feasibility study was the centerpiece of discussions involving the potential return of high school programming at Hamburg during a special meeting of the Iowa State Board of Education on Feb. 20 in Des Moines.

The Hamburg school had made previous visits to the State Board to visit about the high school in March of 2019 and again in January of this year.

Each of those meetings ended with a failed motion but with the promise of more discussions.

On Thursday, Feb. 20, after hearing from patrons, a student, superintendents from Hamburg and Sidney and representatives of the Department of Education itself, the State Board entertained a motion and voted 9-0 against the return of the high school programming at Hamburg in what seemed to the be the board’s final word on the subject.

Dr. Mike Wells of Hamburg appeared before the board first. Instead of rehashing Hamburg’s proposal for a return of the high school program, which had been presented to the board in March of 2019 and again in January, Dr. Wells addressed the feasibility study’s points of concern with the school’s plans to meet accreditation, to offer all necessary courses and to maintain financial viability in implementing the proposal.

Dr. Wells opened his talk by expressing words of appreciation to the board for hearing the Hamburg proposal a third time and said the school was grateful for an in-person visit by State Board Vice President Michael Bearden, who had come down to see what Hamburg’s pre-K to 8 system was doing in the maker space, farm school and other programs.

Hamburg last had a high school prior to its whole grade sharing agreement with Farragut almost 10 years ago. After that arrangement failed, the Department of Education re-drew the boundaries for the districts. That re-draw had Hamburg receiving only a small portion of the former Farragut district and, Dr. Wells said, put the Hamburg school in a tough spot.

“We had our backs against the wall to begin with,” said Dr. Wells.

Hamburg, at that point, sent its high school students to Sidney as part of a tuition agreement, worked to correct issues that it had with accreditation and turned around its financial fortunes, making-over the financial side of the equasion from a weakness to a strength.

After recovering from its circumstance following the Farragut dissolution, Hamburg turned its attention to getting the high school back. Dr. Wells told the board members that a sharing agreement with Essex, a potential career academy program and solid financial numbers as well as the need for local control for a small school all pointed to allowing Hamburg to bring back its programming.

Dr. Wells did acknowledge that a ‘yes’ vote would not be risk free.

“It’s a gamble. Every once in a while, you have to go with the underdog,” he said. “If we are given the opportunity to have a high school, it will work.”

Tim Hood, a shared superintendent of the Sidney, South Page and East Mills schools, spoke after Dr. Wells at the meeting.

Hood said he understood that his comments might not be well received by Hamburg patrons.

“Unfortunately, no matter what I say today, Hamburg residents who believe they can support a high school will take offense,” Hood said.

Hood said he was appearing at the meeting on behalf of

his school board and the patrons of his district asking that the board not allow a high school to open at Hamburg because it would be detrimental to the education of students, both in Hamburg and in Sidney.

Hood told the board that the people of the Sidney school system were sympathetic to what Hamburg residents are going through with flooding issues, but said that he didn’t feel there was a strong connection between that flood event and the high school proposal.

In fact, Hood said the flood issues pointed to issues that would disrupt or stop a high school plan in Hamburg. Flooding, Hood said, results in declining enrollment, an inability to meet the requirements for accreditation and a lack of stability in financial matters.

Hood said the Sidney school stands ready to serve the high school students for both towns with a variety of programs and activities.

“Our programs are already in place and properly accredited,” he said.

Hood returned to the feasibility study in regard to Hamburg’s proposal.

“The feasibility study is clear in its conclusion that Hamburg can not support a high school,” said Hood. “We sincerely hope your decision today will allow our students to continue doing great things together.”

The remarks from the two school superintendents were followed by a question and answer period and the vote of the board.

State Board member Joshua Byrnes, who voted against the Hamburg proposal for a high school at all three meetings where  it was discussed, said at the Feb. 20 meeting that he was a proponent of rural schools.

Byrnes said he felt troubled by comments at the Feb. 20 meeting that indicated that the state was against rural schools or wanted to close them. Byrnes said his career of 20 years as an educator, administrator and legislator were spent defending rural schools and noted that he was part of a rural education task force as a legislator.

“I am an advocate for small schools,” he said. “I understand viability. My big fear is this is not sustainable.”

State Board Vice President Michael Bearden spoke during the meeting about his visit to the Hamburg school and said he was impressed with the way the school operated and the way the kids from K-8 collaborated with older kids helping out the younger ones.

Bearden said he got a full tour of the maker space, the farm school and more.

“It was awesome,” he said. “That K-8 system is awesome. On a 100-point scale, that’s a 99 and I am not sure where you lose that one point.”

Bearden said the thought of losing that K-8 system weighed heavily on him. The State Board was told by the Department of Education that accreditation could not be extended to the high school and pulled back in the event that arrangement didn’t work. The accreditation would attach to the whole school and failure would mean the whole school would close.

Bearden said he hoped that Hamburg and Sidney would continue to have whole grade sharing and consolidation discussions.

The two schools met last week to discuss those topics in a special meeting prior to the State Board trip.

Bearden said the Hamburg and Sidney situation reminds him of discussions that eventually led to the Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School. Both communities involved in that situation found the discussions difficult and said that while the kids were alright with new arrangements, the adults only tolerated one another.

Bearden said it would be unrealistic to expect a “love fest” between Hamburg and Sidney but said he hoped the discussions would go forward anyway.

State Board President Brooke Axiotis said the discussion on Feb. 20 was one that involved people with a passionate interest in educating children on all sides.

Like Bearden, Axiotis said she was impressed and encouraged by all  that she had heard about Hamburg’s K-8 program.

“What they have now is amazing and I love seeing that. I love seeing the kids thriving,” she said.

The all-in for a high school and the all-out of a potential closure was not something Axiotis felt comfortable with going forward.

“This may be a gamble that the community is willing to take, but its not a gamble that we are willing to take,” Axiotis said in a post meeting interview with the Hamburg Reporter.

In looking back at the three state board meetings about the topic, Axiotis said she felt all that discussion was necessary for the board to reach the correct conclusion.

“It’s not something we take lightly,” she said. “It took this time. This weighs on us.”

Going forward, Axiotis said she felt that the Hamburg and Sidney schools should seek a way to work together and said the schools could “save each other.”

Axiotis said she felt that the whole grade sharing and consolidation discussions should be a two-way conversation and not one-sided and pointed to part of the state board discussion indicating a combined school board as a way to foster shared discussion and outcomes for which both sides would feel invested.

Dylan Barrett, a student at Essex and a resident of Hamburg, was invited to address the board in regard to the future of the high school programming at Hamburg.

Barrett attended high school at Sidney as a freshman and then transfered to Essex for his sophomore year. He said he was hoping to sway the board into bringing back his school so that he could avoid a 40-plus mile commute and have the benefit of attending a school in his hometown.

“When you have your hometown high school, you are more welcomed,” he said. “I feel you are more able to succeed in that community because those people around you know you—they know your parents. They can relate back to your situation personally.”

Although the vote didn’t turn out as he hoped, Barrett said he appreciated the chance to speak.

“I felt it was a very good experience and you can learn from these experiences,” he said.

Kim Ashlock, an instructor at Hamburg and a proponent of the return of high school programming, spoke both during the meeting and for an interview with th Hamburg Reporter afterwards.

In response to a board discussion which expressed concern with small class sizes and a lack of collaborative chances for students, Ashlock said she didn’t understand why such arrangements were tolerated for home schoolers but not for the kids attending at Hamburg.

She also noted that the Hamburg students had collaborative opportunities that kids in bigger schools did not since younger and older kids shared time and programs.

During the meeting, Ashlock told the board that Sidney has sufficient numbers to remain in good standing without Hamburg, a point that Superintendent Tim Hood expressed disagreement with later in the meeting.

In advocating for Hamburg’s proposal, Ashlock said Dr. Mike Wells is more than administrator for a school. In addition, Ashlock said he taught and coached at the school was a community leader outside of the building and came to the aid of residents after terrible flooding ravaged the town.

“The school was the meeting place, safe house and donational center for the entire town,” she said. “The school is the heart of the town.

“I am asking you to say yes to our small town,” Ashlock said.

Following the ‘no’ vote, Ashlock said the State Board action did more than just deny the Hamburg school its high school. It also made it harder for the K-8 program.

“It limits our growth,” Ashlock said.

Families who want to bring kids to the small school atmosphere at Hamburg would be discouraged by the fact that the kids would have to be bussed to Sidney starting in the ninth grade, Ashlock said.