The Ottumwa Courier

March 12, 2014

School's ag program fate unresolved

Courier correspondent

---- — KEOSAUQUA — In a meeting that became heated at times, the Van Buren Community School Board voted to gather more information before deciding the future of its ag program.

The board will place the matter on the agenda for the March 19 regular board meeting. Over the past few years, interest in ag-related classes have shrunk to the point where just a handful of students are taking them, according to school officials.

According to Superintendent Dr. Pam Ewell, the total number of students enrolled in 2009 was 34. By 2011-12, it had dropped to 12 and this year stands at 15. Some classes have just two or four students.

“In this time of declining enrollment, it’s a tough thing for schools to offer those courses and for students taking anything that isn’t required in the core.”

She said the master schedule was changed during the 2012-13 school year to move ag classes to the afternoon. This was to prevent students choosing between band/chorus and ag electives. The intent, she said, was to increase enrollment. In the second semester, there are currently four students enrolled.

She has proposed sharing Van Buren’s agriculture classes with another school. Fairfield has been considered. “In the environment when you have increasing expenses, decreasing enrollment and decreasing revenue, we are trying to sustain the program through sharing,” said Ewell.

According to high school principal Chuck Banks, currently, the total costs are $36,105.55 to run the agriculture program, which includes the teacher’s salary. He said if they shared with Fairfield, the costs would be $12,762.88. This includes $7,080 for the driver and $2,378.88 for vehicle costs. It also includes a cost of $6,360 for cost paid to Fairfield. The school would receive $3,056 in supplemental weighting back from the state.

“We’re not trying to cut the ag program; we are trying to save it,” said board member Kara McEntee. “It’s a hard thing, but if kids want to keep the ag program here, they will have to show the interest,” said McEntee.

Ewell said this isn’t a one-year problem but a trend. “I came from a large family farm, I know the value of teaching agriculture, especially here in Iowa. I was interested in something Craig Hill of the Iowa Farm Bureau said. He said that what we’re seeing is that people are staying in farming long-term, longer than in other careers. What I want to know is how is that affecting the youth as they are considering starting a possible career in agriculture?”

Banks said that the current ag instructor, Jennifer Gardner, “is doing a nice job and she is doing a great job trying to sell the program to the students. She has posters, she drums up support. A lot of eighth-graders are interested and would take them if we could make it work with their schedule. If you ask the kids, the reason they don’t take the classes is that they go up against the mandatory courses. I think dual enrollment would help.”

There was a time period that Van Buren didn’t have an agriculture program, some of the administrators said. Bob Steingreaber, board member, said, “I think it was in the early to mid 1980s, maybe 1982 or 1983. Historically, I know Clay Lanman was the ag teacher in the 1960s.” Sheila Parsons said Clay’s tenure even stretched into the 1950s. Parent Dennis Lydolph said there were still agriculture business classes taught in the 1970s.

“If nothing can be done in our own district to improve our program, then sharing with another district needs to be looked at. We need to explore all possibilities, not just one district, as has happened this time.”

Banks said students sign up for classes by the last week in April, but the administration would be able to be flexible in whatever the board decides.