Story of the Year 2022: Brick by brick, an era ends
Sun Courier note and story update
This story – first published on Friday, June 17, 2022 – is the Sun Courier’s ‘Story of the Year’ for 2022. The online version of the article was shared widely via our Facebook and website links. The story resonated with not only those living in Gladbrook or in some way connected to the Gladbrook buildings, but also with those living in small towns across Iowa that have either lost their school to consolidation or closure, or the possibility of either scenario looms on the horizon.
Since the story was published, the buildings have all been taken down. A sign warning motorists of a street closure during school days located along the north side of where the buildings once stood is all that whispers of what once was.
Original story published in its entirety
Brick by brick, an era ends: Demolition of the Gladbrook school begins
Brick by brick the heart of the Gladbrook community has been coming down in recent days as the town’s entire school complex on Washington Street is demolished.
The demolition is the final chapter for the school buildings which formerly housed the Gladbrook Community School District – a district with roots that date back to 1881 when Independent District Number 2 of Spring Creek Township became the Independent District of Gladbrook.
Gladbrook was the ninth town in Tama County to create an independent school district.
Through the years, the campus underwent multiple renovations and additions.
A gymnasium was built in 1916.
An addition that was made to the original building in 1892 was torn down in 1929.
A massive fire destroyed much of the gym on March 24, 1951, but by some higher grace, the main playing floor was salvaged and eventually reused.
In 1953 following the fire, a six-room elementary building was added to the northeast side, as well as a new gym, auditorium, and music building.
An eight-room grade school addition was added in 1958.
A 1967 bond referendum that received more than 90 percent support across all precincts demolished the original 1881 building and a new education wing and swimming pool were added.
But 30 years later – in the wake of the 1980s Farm Crisis which hit the rural farming community of Gladbrook just as hard as anywhere else in Iowa, and after many years of sharing athletics with their northern neighbor Reinbeck – the story of the Gladbrook Community School District began to shift.
By name, the district effectively ceased to exist following its official reorganization with Reinbeck on July 1, 1998 – becoming one-half of the new Gladbrook-Reinbeck Community School District.
For a number of years, the two communities – which lie roughly 17 miles apart, Gladbrook in Tama County and Reinbeck in Grundy County – each schooled their own primary students while Gladbrook housed the middle school and Reinbeck housed the high school. The arrangement is not an uncommon one for many consolidated districts across the state of Iowa including the nearby Union Community School District which has schools in both Tama and Black Hawk counties.
But as Iowa’s small towns and rural spaces continue to bleed population to bigger towns and other states – and, in turn, fewer and fewer children attend local schools located just down the block – many districts have made the pragmatic, but devastating choice to close one (or more) of their communities’ buildings.
Gladbrook became one such community following the 2014-2015 school year when its K-8 building was closed.
In the wake of that decision, certified enrollment numbers for the district suffered a significant deficit as a sizeable number of Gladbrook parents made the choice to open enroll their children to nearby districts.
In the decade leading up to the school closure, the G-R district averaged 67.37 resident students open enrolling out of the district. It was a fairly reliable metric from year to year. Declining enrollment was also taking place almost every year.
But following the 2014-2015 school year – the year Gladbrook, a community of under 1,000 people, lost its school – G-R’s open enrollment out numbers saw a near 79 percent increase with 125 students enrolling out for the 2015-2016 school year compared to the previous school year’s total of 70 students.
A little more than 140 G-R students open enrolled out in both the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years; about 156 students open enrolled out in 2018-2019; about 162 did the same in 2019-2020.
In a Grundy Register article published in April of 2018 following the failed September 12, 2017 vote to dissolve the G-R district and send students to five neighboring districts (a vote very much connected to the decision to close the Gladbrook school), G-R school board member Doug Rowe of Gladbrook was quoted regarding the vacant Gladbrook campus.
“I don’t think anybody is happy with it because it didn’t really need to be this way, but now that it is, something positive has got to happen with that facility … The city and the school both want it to be as positive as it can possibly be,” Rowe said in the article.
Some four years later, the decision to demolish the Gladbrook school was finalized during a Feb. 16, 2022, G-R school board meeting.
Losing your identity
Although the Gladbrook Panthers ceased to exist once the district began sharing athletics with Reinbeck in 1988, many still identify as such in the community.
The Sun Courier reached out to several individuals for comment on this story but most declined, citing how painful the demolition, the closure, and even the consolidation are to discuss, as well as conflicts of interest that prevent them from going on record.
But the Sun Courier did receive many comments from Gladbrook residents and graduates who asked to remain anonymous.
“My husband says he remembers sitting in class and watching the east building being erected. I taught there for 4 years. I am furious. There are very upset people in town,” one Gladbrook resident said.
“Sure, the Gladbrook school wasn’t the fanciest school around, but it had been completely updated through the years with things like a new roof, new gym floor, windows, etc,” another resident said, before continuing:
“It hurts a lot personally. It is so hard when I drive by the elementary, middle, and high school portions of the building. I remember so many special memories I had in every single room. Beyond just me, there are thousands of other Gladbrook alumni who also went through those rooms. It’s more than just a building, it’s a place that so many of us have a special place in our hearts and it’s killing us to see it knocked down now.”
“Beyond the Gladbrook school building itself, it’s like the central part of Gladbrook – along with its future – is being taken away.”
According to previous reporting by the Sun Courier, the demolition of the Gladbrook school will include the removal of everything except the sidewalks.
During the February G-R school board meeting, G-R Superintendent Erik Smith indicated the district would do its best to coordinate demolition so as to not interfere with Gladbrook’s 100th annual Corn Carnival set to take place this weekend.
When contacted for this story, the G-R superintendent’s office said demolition work – which has not yet been completed – was paused in anticipation of Gladbrook’s annual festival but would be restarted next week sometime.
In an email to the Sun Courier, Supt. Smith said final plans for the former school site have not yet been made but the G-R school board would begin to discuss the issue at their July meeting.
No plans have been discussed regarding the return of any type of building to Gladbrook, Smith further stated, outside of possibly bus storage.
“When the building was closed, there was discussion of the demolition of the building and many felt a promise was made to the citizens of Gladbrook,” Smith said. “After I toured the building and talked with a few citizens of Gladbrook as well as city leaders, I felt it was the base course of action. With the condition of the building, this was the best option. It may not be the most popular decision, and I can understand why, but it was a decision we felt was the best course of action as we move forward.”
When contacted by the Sun Courier, an official with the city of Gladbrook indicated informal discussion had taken place in regards to the school district possibly transferring ownership of the former Gladbrook school to the city.
And so, as dozens if not hundreds of former Gladbrook Community School District graduates visit the community this weekend to celebrate the Corn Carnival’s 100 years of existence, they will also have the opportunity to walk around their former school one last time – outside the chain-link fence and with demolition frozen for the moment – to say goodbye.
Gladbrook’s school demolition will certainly not be the last to take place in Iowa as consolidations tend to come in waves every 15 years or so with a peppering of reorganizations in the ensuing years.
But each building mattered and as such the loss should be observed.