school consolidation
Keith Srakocic/AP
The Monaca High School of the current Monaca School District, is shown in Monaca, Pa.,
Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008. The future of the high school building will be decided when the
marriage of the Center Area and Monaca school districts takes place.

States, School Districts Talk Consolidation to Save Money

February 10, 2009 09:00 AM
by Emily Coakley
Tough economic times have some school districts thinking about merging, though not everyone thinks consolidation is a great idea.

Pennsylvania Latest to Contemplate Merging

As states and local governments struggle with trying to close budget shortfalls, some places are talking about saving money through consolidating school districts.

Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania released a budget proposal last week that included forming a commission to examine consolidation. Rendell would like to see the state’s 500 districts consolidate into 100 or fewer, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune.

The paper reported that “more than 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s districts have fewer than 2,000 students. Eighty percent educate fewer than 5,000 students.” In the 1950s, Pennsylvania had 2,700 school districts, and the state allowed for consolidation.

In Indiana, a state senate bill calls for school districts with 500 pupils or fewer to consolidate by 2013. Indiana has consolidated the number of school districts from 1,115 to 293 over the last 57 years.

Late last year Maine passed a law to consolidate the state’s school districts down to 80 from its current 290. One small school district in the town of Kittery was recently granted an exemption to remain on its own after unsuccessfully searching for partners.

But not everyone feels consolidation is the answer.

“There’s not any real evidence that putting these school districts (together) would even be better for the districts affected, let alone the state of Indiana,” said Paul Garrison, superintendent of Daleville Community Schools, in an interview with The Star Press of Muncie.

And Timothy Allwein of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association told the Times-Tribune that the consolidation question is raised whenever finances are tight. The association is still exploring the issue, but pointed out that “larger school districts give you a larger bureaucracy.”

Consolidation also raises many questions, said Joseph Daley, a school district superintendent. In an interview with the Times-Tribune, Daley said that besides making sure salaries are equal, the districts would also have to determine who owns the buildings and equipment, and figure out what would happen to sports teams.

Other districts are considering smaller consolidation efforts. In Chester County, S.C., school officials are thinking about merging two high schools to save money. According to the Rock Hill Herald, such a move could save $1.7 million in eliminated staff positions. Other costs could cut into that savings, and district officials aren’t sure how much the proposal could actually save. State funding cuts are cited as the reason for considering the plan, which many students and parents seem to oppose.

Opinion & Analysis: To consolidate or not to consolidate?

On the blog Lehigh Valley Somebody, a parent in the Allentown, Pa., area known as Mrs. Dottie said Rendell’s consolidation ideas have some good points. To her, property taxes would be more fairly distributed with consolidated districts, and that would bring more equity to schools.

She’s not entirely convinced though, and took issue with a legislator who said consolidation would allow “a more standardized curriculum across a region.”

“Good God, is that what we really want, MORE standardization? … Just mix that in with the already stifling NCLB ‘teaching to the test’ curriculum and it's a recipe for disaster,” Mrs. Dottie writes, adding that education decisions should be left to educators, not legislators.

Across the country in Santa Cruz, Calif., a middle school teacher says that the district he works for is about to lose a superintendent, so it’s time to think about consolidation.

“We can plod along the well-traveled road we've been down before,” Tom Medeiros wrote. “Seek a new superintendent, make the necessary cuts, hope they don’t overly impact the kids we serve.”

Or, he suggests, the district can look to reach a new level.

“We can look to the economy of size, and negotiate to join a bordering district, Santa Cruz City also seeking a superintendent, or Soquel of similar size and configuration,” he writes, adding that the district could contract, “with the county Office of Education to provide financial and compliance oversight.”

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