Time for action

The Laurens-Marathon School District is losing overall population. It is bleeding students through open enrollment to other school districts — a net of 60 next year. It will end this year with a deficit of more than $200,000. And on Monday, the school board elbowed out Superintendent Iner Joelson with a decent severance package, according to the Laurens Sun newspaper.

The ship is listing.

So it is reassuring that the district will solicit objective guidance through the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency headquartered in Pocahontas. The AEA has some jurisdiction over school sharing and merger.

The obvious path to us, at least, is to dissolve the district and merge the Laurens component with Pocahontas Area Community Schools. PAC already is nearly a county-wide school district. Rolfe is in. Pomeroy and Palmer are in. Relatively strong Newell-Fonda, split between BV and Pocahontas counties, and the teetering Laurens-Marathon are not in.

Laurens and Pocahontas have a long history as the two biggest towns in the county. It is hard to overcome those differences. Remember how long it took for Alta and Aurelia to see eye to eye; those old rivalries are long buried now.

The Marathon portion of the district easily could flow into Sioux Central. That’s where most of the open-enrollment students from the west side of the L-M district are heading now.

For an isolated rural community, Laurens is holding its own. Still, Pocahontas County is among the leaders in Iowa for depopulation as people go grey or gravitate to regional commercial centers like Fort Dodge and Storm Lake. Calhoun County, with similar demographics, is down to one district contained within the county, plus Manson-Northwest Webster. Ida County has Ridge View, shared with Sac and Buena Vista counties, and Ida Grove (OABCIG). It makes sense for one school district to serve most of Pocahontas County. It makes sense for Laurens and Pocahontas to work together for public education.

The dynamics are not likely to turn around in a year with a new superintendent. Faculty members are bailing. The school funding formula is not going to get any more generous without increasing enrollment. Demands for better facilities and more complicated curricula will only grow on the near horizon.

The school board is in the unenviable position of having its back against the wall. It needs to make a decision this year about what will happen next fall. AEA advice certainly will help and provide a little cover for the board. Ultimately, board members must take a vote that few people savor: to give in to the reality of today and share with Pocahontas. Let Marathon go, since it has already left.

Branstad riding high

You have to admire Sen. Jack Hatch’s civic spirit. Somebody has to run against Gov. Terry Branstad this November. Hatch draws the Democratic straw. The Des Moines state senator and residential developer is trudging up a steep slope to Terrace Hill. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll found that the long-time governor has sky-high poll numbers. A new Quinnipiac Poll shows Branstad with 68% approval of Iowans.

Poll respondents find Branstad to be honest and hard-working. They think he is pragmatic. They know him.

And unless Terry Branstad is the challenger in a race against incumbent Chet Culver during an economic implosion, Iowans are loathe to send incumbents packing. Bob Ray was governor forever. Tom Harkin is leaving the Senate so they don’t haul him out on a stretcher. Chuck Grassley will serve until he is at least 99. And so on.

Branstad will run to the right when he has to. He will charm the teachers’ union depending on the year and circumstances. He will be against gambling until he has to sign the bill into law. He is for clean water and 200-bushel corn. His biggest corruption is riding too fast while the trooper is stepping on it.

Branstad knows country editors on a first-name basis. He is tighter than tight with the Farm Bureau. Even Bill Knapp, the Des Moines real estate titan who lards Democratic campaigns, is giving Branstad money.

Unless the governor shuts down the I-80 bridge from Davenport to Rock Island to embarrass some local pol, you would have to think he will coast into re-election.

Unless you were Jack Hatch, presumably.