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Cyrus school may reorganize by 2013-2014 school year

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MORRIS, Minn. - Although the Cyrus School Board has voted to continue serving students in the 2012 - 2013 school year, the district is looking into reorganization options for the future, which could include combining with other districts in the area.

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At a meeting Monday to discuss the reorganization process, John Bulger, a representative from the Minnesota Department of Education School Finance Division, told superintendents and school board members from the Cyrus, Morris, Minnewaska, Hancock and West Central Area school districts that "consolidation is a normal process," but it is one that must be locally-driven and keep the students' best interests in mind.

Today, Cyrus has 32 students enrolled in the district. Open enrollment and the opening of Glacial Hills Elementary in Starbuck have challenged the district, which at one time had 85 students enrolled. Superintendent Tom Knoll said the district could enter Statutory Operating Debt in 2012. Monday's meeting was a way for all parties that might be involved with the reorganization to get the information they need about the process.

"You have to look and see if the K-6 educational process is viable for kids," said Knoll. "We have to do what's best for the children so they get a good learning opportunity."

There are two main ways for districts to reorganize: dissolution and consolidation. Dissolution is a less-common method, one Bulger said he hasn't seen in the 22 years he's worked with the Department of Education.

In the dissolution process, the school board turns over control of the district to their county board, which then chooses which district to attach the defunct district to. Both districts involved with the dissolution lose all authorization for any operating referendums that voters have already approved, which is the major reason this process is not often used, said Bulger.

It's more likely - and more beneficial to all parties involved - to go through the consolidation process. With a consolidation, a new school district is created by combining two or more old school districts.

"In the last few years, [consolidation] has slowed down, but people are still consolidating school districts in Minnesota," said Bulger.

In 1945, there were 7,676 school districts in Minnesota. In the 1950s, legislation requiring that school districts have both an elementary and high school resulted in a number of consolidations. Since 1970, the number of school districts in the state has fallen further, from 669 to 337 in 2012.

The consolidation process is governed by a series of statutes and is a "very legal process," explained Bulger, that address everything from how to transition revenue and debt to how to handle employees during the process.

The consolidation process typically takes between 6 and 18 months to complete, and starts with a school board resolution to begin the process or a petition of voters to the county board. Once the process begins, the school boards of affected districts need to pass resolutions that address bonded and operational debt, capital and energy local obligations, excess and down payment levy referendums and how the new, consolidated, school board will be handled.

Bulger also emphasized that "planning is everything" during the consolidation process, and urged that the districts involved develop a plan that outlines common goals, understandings, changes, benefits and issues that need to be resolved.

Citizens also have a right to vote on consolidation. After school boards have published the intent to consolidate in the official district newspapers, if the school boards have not called for an election, citizens may petition for a referendum. If elections occur, there must be a majority vote in all elections in favor of consolidation for the process to continue.

One benefit to school districts who consolidate is "consolidation transition revenue" of $300 per students over two years based on the number of students impacted by the change. Bulger said it's best to use this money for one-time expenses like legal fees or new school uniforms, but that it is available.

Bulger also noted that school consolidations happen across the state, and in districts of all sizes. Although Minnesota is one of the few states with no requirements about the size of a school district, "At a certain point, you have to say, 'How small can our school get? How efficiently can we run the school?' You have to deal with the financial and economic realities of running a school," said Bulger.

"A school is more than bricks and mortar," Bulger continued. "A school is about educating kids, and if you're spending all your money maintaining this big building and you have no kids, is that the best use of public funds?"

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Kim Ukura is the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune. 

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