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Enrollment down at Mason City Schools, district to lose nearly $700K in state funding

MASON CITY | Mason City Schools is reporting its certified enrollment is about 103 lower than last year, according to school officials.

Certified enrollment is based on a funding formula and differs from the district's actual number of students, but the dip translates into a loss of nearly $700,000 in state money for Mason City's general fund, which is primarily used for teacher salaries. 

Mason City's certified enrollment is 3,639 this year, down from 3,742. The majority of losses occurred at the elementary level, Superintendent Dave Versteeg told School Board members during a meeting Monday night, and could impact class sizes in the future. 

Although certified enrollment is down, Versteeg said there were several positives on the report: 

• The number of non-resident students open enrolled at Mason City is up 31 this year. 

• The number of Mason City students open enrolled in other districts is three fewer compared to last year. 

• The number of preschool students is up by 10 this year, which Versteeg said will likely result in a larger kindergarten class next year. 

• The number of English Language Learner students increased from 20 to over 80 this year, resulting in extra funding. 

While Versteeg said the certified enrollment numbers were not good news, he believes the district will be able to absorb the loss -- ideally, through early retirements and resignations for the 2018-19 school year. 

"Until we know what those will be, I can't comment on where we'll go next," he said. Early retirements are due in January. 

Mason City had a record number of early retirees in 2015 -- 29, who had 753 years of experience. Those retirements saved the district nearly $1 million, according to school officials.

The district could also choose to tap into cash reserves or lay off employees, but Versteeg stressed staff reductions would be a last resort. 

No decisions have been made and the process will be ongoing, Versteeg said, as Mason City works towards certifying next year's budget in March or April. 

The district's enrollment has fluctuated over the years, but was most heavily impacted when the Decker Meat Packing Plant closed in the mid-1970s. 

In the decade that followed, Mason City lost about a third of its students, dropping from around 6,700 to 4,800.

Numbers began to even out in the mid-1980s, but have steadily dipped downward since the late 1990s.  

Mason City has only recorded eight enrollment gains between the 1974-75 and today, according to district records. The largest one occurred when the district added 29 new students in 1996-97.

With declining enrollment has come multi-million general fund cuts in recent years. 

In 2015, school officials said they were faced with a $1.3 million shortfall, which they planned to make up by restructuring administrative positions and realigning services. Officials said the shortfall would have been larger, had it not been offset by a sizable number of early retirements and resignations. 

In 2014, school leaders said $2.2 million had to be trimmed from the budget. The district's athletic director position was considered for termination but the School Board voted against moving forward with the process after outcry from teachers, students and residents. Three teaching positions on the chopping block that year were retained, while a fourth was changed to part-time. Two teachers who withdrew requests for closed-session hearings with the board were terminated. 

In 2010-11, 45 paraprofessional positions were eliminated in a $2.2 million cost-saving measure. 

Competing Mason City hotel developers will 'bid-off' Monday

MASON CITY | Another chapter in Mason City's quest for a new downtown hotel will be written Monday when a "bid-off" occurs between G8 Development and Gatehouse Mason City LLC.

In the bid-off, each developer will participate via conference call and try to make their respective bids the most acceptable to the City Council.

The session, which is required by state law, will last no longer than three hours. Each side will have segments of no longer than a half-hour to adjust their bids. The council will meet in special session at 7 p.m. Monday to decide which bid to approve. That meeting will be in the Mason City Room at the Mason City Public Library.

The council was poised Tuesday to approve a development agreement with Gatehouse to build a hotel in the south parking lot of Southbridge Mall, connect it to The Music Man Square via a skywalk, build a conference center in The Music Man Square and move the museum to a separate building adjacent to it.

But that changed at 11:43 a.m. Tuesday when G8 Development of San Diego submitted a bid, 17 minutes before the deadline for bids.

The council determined the bid was competitive, leaving it no choice but to authorize the bid-off.

Gatehouse representative David Rachie said he had "no comment" about the last-minute bid and its ramifications.

Councilman Travis Hickey said the taxpayers will be the winners in the bid off because the bids will obviously be lowered.

"I know this kind of caught people off guard," he said. "But no matter what happens, we're going to build a hotel and hockey rink. This creates a competitive bid process. What business person doesn't like that?"

The vote to support the bid-off was approved by a vote of 4-1. Bill Schickel voted against it, saying he believed the citizens' 75 percent approval on two ballot issues Nov. 7 were, in effect, a vote for Gatehouse. John Lee was absent from the meeting.

Paul Adams said, "It is the council's duty to protect taxpayers" and that the bid off was the next step in that process."

G8, owned by Phillip Chodur, is the company that originally sought to build a Hilton hotel in the parking lot west of City Hall but could not get approval from Hilton. He then came back to the council with a plan to build a Marriott in the same location but defaulted when he could not meet deadlines for start of construction.

Subsequent to that, he filed suit against the city and the Chamber of Commerce for obstructing his plans. 

In his latest proposal, he has agreed to drop his lawsuit if the council approves his plan.

In G8's proposal, principal and interest on the 20-year loan will be paid annually, thereby lowering the city risk. In the Gatehouse plan, the risk remains for 20 years.

Also, in the Gatehouse plan, the city is obligated to pay $750,000 in upfront costs that are nonrefundable if the project falls through. G8 has agreed to pay back all upfront costs if the project fails.

G8 has agreed to have HPI Hospitality manage the new hotel, the same company that manages the Historic Park Inn.   


Tom Thoma / Picasa 



North Iowa Cheer Fund applicants seek assistance during holidays for children

MASON CITY | North Iowans experiencing difficult circumstances are hoping the Christmas Cheer Fund will brighten their holidays.

A 37-year-old Mason City woman with four children ages 6, 12, 16 and 17 is a single mom who is self-employed.

“As a single parent, raising four children and receiving child support for only one of them as well as preparing for a brand new grandbaby, things are financially difficult,” she wrote on her Cheer Fund application. “Any assistance available in providing Christmas to all five children would be greatly appreciated.”

She is seeking funding for household needs, Christmas gifts and supplies.

A 35-year-old Klemme man with two children ages 1 and 2 has been unemployed since 2015 due to multiple surgeries.

“I need help getting gifts for my two small children please,” he wrote in his application requesting funds for his children.

A 36-year-old Mason City man with six children ages 3, 7, 11, 13, 15 and 17 is seeking assistance to purchase blankets and warm clothes, according to her application.

Since the Cheer Fund began in 1927, $3,088,122 has been raised.

This year’s goal is $125,000.

Can you help us help those in need?

The Christmas Cheer Fund was established by Globe Gazette Publisher Lee Loomis in 1927 so every child could have a present on Christmas morning. In the years since it has come to mean a little help at Christmastime to people of all ages.

Donations may be dropped off or mailed to the Globe Gazette office, 300 N. Washington Ave., Mason City, IA 50402-0271.

Any remaining funds not distributed for the holidays will be given to local nonprofits. The Christmas Cheer Fund balance will return to $100 in January to maintain the checking account.

Those in need can apply for help from the Cheer Fund at the Globe Gazette between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Applicants must use the 2017 request form. Applications will close at noon Dec. 21.