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Inflation slams western Iowa rural schools’ budgets

A bus sits outside the elementary school in Lawton-Bronson Community School district. It's one of six different buses that shuttles students to and from the rural western Iowa district.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
A bus sits outside the elementary school in Lawton-Bronson Community School district. It's one of six buses that shuttles students to and from the rural western Iowa district.

Each morning, eight buses trace routes across the Maple Valley-Anthon Oto Community School District in Monona County. Some drive the 20 miles north it takes to fetch kids from Anthon. Others shuttle students from the town of Castana, more than 10 miles southeast of the elementary school.

The bright yellow buses that pull into the western Iowa district’s schools each day can hold up to 100 gallons of diesel fuel. As diesel prices at the pump linger at more than $5 a gallon, Superintendent Jeff Thelander said that means they’re $16,000 over their average budget.

“It's a little complicated,” Thelander said. “It's not easy to just say ‘We'll just remove a route,' because we don't want to have a child on a bus more than the legal limit of 55 minutes either.”

Maple Valley-Anthon Oto Community School District superintendent Jeff Thelander sits in his office. He said inflation is hitting rural school budgets hard.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Maple Valley-Anthon Oto Community School District superintendent Jeff Thelander sits in his office. He said inflation is hitting rural school budgets hard.

Inflation is at the front of mind for school districts across the country, but especially for districts in rural areas – where longer bus routes equate to much higher transportation costs. Small town school districts in western Iowa are having to dip into their reserve funds to fill their buses’ tanks.

On top of transportation, food inflation means districts are spending more to serve school lunches. The price of ham has gone up $8 a pound. Lettuce has nearly increased by $7 a case. And ranch dressing has surged by a little over $5.

For MVOA, that all adds up to more than $500 extra on school lunches each week — around $1.36 dollars per student per day. The rising costs leave Thelander with a big budget cutting dilemma:

“Where do we make potential decisions that have the least impact on the education of our kids?” Thelander said.

A staff member serves school lunches to students in the Maple Valley-Anthon Oto Community School District.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
A staff member serves school lunches to students in the Maple Valley-Anthon Oto Community School District.

It’s not easy for rural school districts, who are often already operating on shoestring budgets. While businesses can raise the price of their goods, schools are tied to per-pupil state funding. Many rural schools across the nation are facing declining enrollment. With each student they lose, they face less funding for often the same operating costs.

Executive Director of the National Rural Education Association Allen Pratt said inflation is leading school leaders to recalculate how their district can move forward.

“With funding they received from the state and the federal government kind of slowly weaning away and how we’re gonna pick up the slack, there’s just a lot of unknowns,” Pratt said. “And I think that’s the fear area that people are kind of living in: what’s it going to look like in a year?”

 Westwood Community School District in Sloan, Iowa is dealing with the impact of inflation.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
Westwood Community School District in Sloan is dealing with the impact of inflation.

At a recent school board meeting for Westwood Community School District, board members tried to prepare for that uncertain future. It’s one of 81 Iowa school districts – largely rural – whose enrollment declined this year.

The rural Westwood Community School District is home of the Rebels. A sign outside the school reads 'Keep it Together Rebels'.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
The rural Westwood Community School District is home of the Rebels.

Superintendent Jay Lutt said rising costs are making it harder to address one of the district’s biggest issues: staffing shortages. Lutt said they’ve raised their wages for positions like substitute staff and for bus drivers, whose average hourly rate in the state is $18.

But as inflation shrinks their budget, he said the district feels stuck. It just can’t compete with other starting wages.

“It's just putting school districts across the state and across the nation kind of behind a big boulder because we can't get the people to our schools to work,” Lutt said.

This year, the Iowa state legislature gave education funding a 2.5 percent increase, which translates to about $172 million in additional state funding. But, under chapter 20 of Iowa code, schools are required to give their teachers a raise of 3 percent or the consumer price index rate – which sat at 8.5 percent in March.

Dave Daughton of Rural Schools Advocates of Iowa said he feels the increase wasn’t enough to cover the raises and higher costs. He said inflation is exasperating an already stretched system.

“Where do we make potential decisions that have the least impact on the education of our kids?”
Jeff Thelander, superintendent of Maple Valley-Anthon Oto Community School District

“School districts are not being given enough resources to do the things they are being asked to do,” Daughton said. “So they're not really equipped to deal with inflation.”

When inflation hits rural schools, it can send ripple effects throughout the entire system, said Iowa State Education Association president Mike Beranek. Staffing makes up around 80 percent of a school district's budget. As the budget tightens, staffing levels and programming become under threat.

“If a district can't afford to offer an AP course then those students in those communities won't have the same opportunities that would occur in a larger district,” Beranek said.

IMG_9208.jpg
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
A bus sits outside Lawton-Bronson Community School District's high school. It's one of six buses that shuttles students to and from the school in western Iowa.

At Lawton-Bronson Community School District in northwest Iowa, Superintendent Chad Shook said they’re looking first to other areas to save money. It’s likely they’ll have to postpone capital projects like the resurfacing their track field and repaving their parking lot.

He said his main budget strategy right now rests largely on hope. The hope that the inflation spiral unwinds a bit before they have to sacrifice anything too close to the classroom.

“But I don't know how many years of this we can take,” Shook said.

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.