Monday, July 14, 2008

Power of the People

Our little town performed a miracle.  I'll let John Carlson from the Des Moines Register tell you our story:

Carlson: Towns show meaning of school spirit


The bank lobby was jammed with farmers, business owners and other West Bend-area residents, all with their pens and checkbooks ready.

Everybody in the West Iowa Bank that afternoon last month already had given cash to the most important cause a community could have. They were ready to do it again.

"We had 20 minutes to go before the bank closed, and we were still $76,000 short," said Dawn Schmidt of West Bend, an organizer of what might be the largest, fastest money-raising effort rural Iowa has ever seen.

"The clock was ticking, and people were making calls, finding more money. People were cashing in their CDs and transferring money from savings accounts. And we made it. We got the money we needed."

The people of West Bend and Mallard saved their school system. In the long run, they likely preserved the vitality and very heart of their communities, too.

In 18 days, residents and former residents of the northern Iowa towns came up with $852,953.63. We're not talking pledges; we're talking cash in the bank.

It took that kind of money, that fast, to keep the Iowa Department of Education from shutting down a school district that less than a year ago was honored by U.S. News and World Report magazine as having one of the finest high schools in the nation.

The magazine gives no awards for financial crises. That's good, because the West Bend-Mallard School District was, and still is, in a doozy.

The details of how it happened are complicated, involving "unspent authorized balances" and "allowable growth" formulas and "modified allowable growth" dispensations by state review committees.

Put simply, the administration and school board overspent and underplanned, and the West Bend-Mallard district was looking at operating at a deficit for a fourth consecutive year.

Most people in the district had not realized what was happening with the finances and were shocked that a state-imposed death penalty was looming.

It wasn't just idle talk. The same thing happened in tiny Russell just a few months ago. The district ran at an unacceptable deficit and the state shut it down.

"The Department of Education people explained it reasonably and offered as much help as possible, but the fact is, the high school almost certainly would be closed and we were looking at losing the whole school district," Schmidt said. "We weren't going to let it happen."
The thing is, there wasn't much time to make up the district's $700,000 deficit, plus get a $150,000 cushion to start the 2008-09 school year. The money was needed by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Letters explaining the problem were written on June 11. Mailing labels came from a database compiled from West Bend's recent sesquicentennial and all-school reunion. The letters and envelopes, folded and stuffed by volunteers, were printed by the West Bend Journal newspaper.

A total of 1,402 letters went in the mail on June 12. Another 155 went out the next day. The cost of postage came straight out of people's pockets.

"The letter made it clear this was an all-or-nothing thing," Schmidt said. "We had to make the goal of $850,000 by the close of business on June 30. All checks mailed in would be null and void if we didn't make it. This wasn't going to be a 'do the best we can if we only got $300,000' kind of thing. We were going to get the money we needed to save the school or we weren't."

One check for $100,000 arrived. There was one for $70,000 and one for $50,000. But organizers knew this wouldn't make it on the backs of a few large donors.
It didn't.

Two children came to the school district office, each with $1 to contribute to their school. Some kids in Minneapolis, cousins of students at West Bend-Mallard, opened a lemonade stand and sent $10.

A lighted digital sign on West Bend's Main Street kept people up to date with the amount raised. It flashed a running tally as the checks came in. People stood and watched as the number changed.

It was exciting. And for a while, a bit discouraging.
By June 25 - five days before the deadline - just $334,000 in checks was at the bank. That was less than half the goal.

People talked to those who hadn't contributed about what was at stake. It was more than just school buildings in West Bend, population 834, and Mallard, population 298. Schools close, and communities begin to lose their identities. Main Street suffers.

They'd seen it before all around the state.

"It's a drip, drip, drip, and we sure didn't want it to happen here," said Bob Runchey, owner of the International-Case farm equipment dealership in West Bend.

West Bend, a town without a stoplight, had raised big money before. People pooled their cash and built the country club. They did the same with the lumberyard. Even the Ford dealership. They came up with $621,000 to build the Park View motel. So raising $850,000 to save the school surely was doable.

Some towns would turn the key on the buildings and walk away. Not here, a place former county supervisor and school board member Lannie Miller calls "too tough to die."

"It's a lot of money, but I thought it was possible," said Runchey, the implement dealer.

"We're in the middle of four county seat towns, all of them about 20 miles away. People want the community to thrive," he said. "We've got a grocery store and a couple of restaurants and other businesses. This is important for them. People always tell us we're a wealthy area with some very successful farmers. Pretty much everybody stepped up. Some did in a big way."

The money kept coming, but not a single check was cashed before the deadline. Which brought them to 2:40 p.m. on June 30, and the crowd at the bank and $76,000 to go.

The truth is, they stretched that 3 p.m. deadline. But not by much. The last-minute calls, checks and money transfers worked. There were cheers and high-fives.
It was like Christmas Eve at the Bailey house in Bedford Falls. OK, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed weren't in the bank lobby, but the celebration made it a very wonderful day in West Bend and Mallard.

The sign on Main Street flashed the good news.
Schmidt said they might end up with as much as $900,000 when the last of the 326 contributions come in.
Not that it's over. An interim school superintendent has been hired - the previous superintendent resigned in May - and some very hard decisions will have to be made.
Such as the future of the West Bend building, which houses the high school and prekindergarten through second grade, and the Mallard building, where third- through eighth-graders attend. The staff size may be reduced. Nothing is off the table.

People in the district know they saved their school, and they are darned proud of it.

They are talking about saving some of the school's money a month from now by grabbing mops and buckets and deep-cleaning the buildings themselves before school starts.

Not that it should be a surprise. These people have already shown they'll do whatever it takes.