Extension counties move closer to reorganization

The Structured for Success committee outlined three operating models for counties to consider and updated the timeline as ISU Extension and Outreach restructures to best educate and serve Iowans. In the next two months, county councils will select one of the models, which go into effect July 1, 2020.

The committee introduced the first two models in late August. A group of county directors put together a third model shared with the committee, which was released for feedback in October. It's an option for counties that have a county director, office manager or coordinator with similar administrative duties. All three models have a regional director funded by extension, with varied roles.

The process began in September 2018 with listening sessions with county councils and staff across the state. The structure and operations of extension services throughout the Midwest also were reviewed.

"I am very hopeful," said John Lawrence, vice president for extension and outreach. "Bringing clarity around expectations will help us, and consistency around the state is key to helping meet the needs of Iowans locally."

The models

In the first model, the regional director has supervisory responsibilities, freeing up county directors and staffs to focus on local education, engagement and programming. A regional director's skills in financial management and human resources can be spread across the counties, Lawrence said. The number of counties each regional director oversees likely will not exceed four to avoid stretching resources too thin.

"We still have some counties that are looking at what works well today rather than the longer term where they need to be," Lawrence said. "We want this to be efficient, and that is what I am asking county councils to consider."

The second model is designed for Iowa's largest counties -- those with 10 or more employees and an operating budget of at least $350,000. Single large counties or two moderate-sized counties can join together under one regional director, eliminating the need for county directors. In this model, extension covers 20% of the regional director's salary, benefits and travel, with the county or counties responsible for the rest.

The third model allows some administrative duties to remain with the county directors, who will lead day-to-day office operations and supervise county staff. The regional director, in conjunction with the extension council, oversees and supports the county director.

Councils choosing the second model must make their decision by Jan. 1, 2020, and those selecting models 1 or 3 have until Feb. 1, 2020.

The new districts formed by the restructuring will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Iowa State by June 1, 2020. It covers three years, July 1, 2020-June 30, 2023. Counties are allowed a one-time option to move from one model to another during the three-year period.

Paying for the changes

For those choosing models 1 or 3, counties will contribute a 1% service fee on top of the current shared services in the new MOUs, but the 1% fee will be waved for fiscal year 2021. County extension council budgets must be certified by March 15 and the compressed timeline proved difficult for councils during the significant transition, leading Lawrence to wave the first year of the fee.

"We are investing a little more centrally into this because I think we may have gotten spread too thin," Lawrence said. "But also we are asking counties to send us an additional 1% of the tax revenue they generate locally. I am putting about an equal amount in and we are adding four people, going from 20 to 24 regionwide directors."

Counties selecting the second model will not pay the service fee, but the 80-20 split with extension for regional director costs begins July 1.

Value to the counties

In addition to bringing some consistency to extension's county operations, Lawrence said the models will benefit county extension employees.

County staff will have more access to university human resources and equal opportunity training. Counties -- regardless of model -- will be able to offer employees ISU health and dental insurance at the merit employee rate.

"This is one more option that may work well for some counties," Lawrence said. "We are hopeful this will get better benefits across the system to help with our retention."

The agreement also brings a new way to provide feedback from both extension and the counties. Development began this month on a two-way scorecard that gives counties the ability to provide formal feedback on ISU's regional directors, program specialists and campus administration. Extension also will be able to provide its input back to the counties. 

"It gives people the chance to find out how they are doing based on the agreed-upon expectations and formalizes the discussion," Lawrence said. "Before, it was always fuzzy across the state."