As economic hard times continue for many school systems, several states are pursuing, or at least considering, the politically thorny step of merging small districts. In many cases, people acknowledge as a general matter the potential benefits of consolidating districts; but when the merger arrow is aimed at their own systems, those same people aren't so supportive.
From coast to coast, school systems with tiny enrollments continue to operate. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2007-08, nearly 46 percent of the nation's 13,924 regular public elementary and secondary school districts (6,389) had student enrollments of less than 1,000. More than 4,000 districts enrolled fewer than 500 students. By contrast, only 871 districts had more than 10,000 students in 2007-08.
State policymakers and educators see merging districts as an opportunity to allocate funds more efficiently by saving on administrative and facility costs. Consolidated school systems may be able to offer students a wider range of course offerings.
But for the small communities that would lose their districts or separate school campuses in a consolidation, the issue transcends mere financial considerations — it often goes to the heart of a community's identity and its future viability.
Those conflicts inevitably make district consolidation efforts a bruising and time-consuming battle. Here are some examples:
In Maine, after opponents of consolidation were able to place a statewide referendum on the ballot, voters decided in November 2009 not to repeal a consolidation law passed in 2007 that called for reducing the number of districts in the state to 80 from 260. As of July 2009, Maine still had 218 districts.
In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour has created a commission that will review the structure of public school districts in the state and recommend how they can be consolidated "in order to improve both the quality of education and the efficiency with which it is delivered." Barbour has recommended that Mississippi reduce the number of districts from 152 to 100, but he has authorized the commission to reach its own conclusion about the ideal number of school systems.
In Delaware, a state auditor's 2009 report found that consolidating Delaware's 19 districts into four systems would save the state $50 million a year by eliminating 741 administrative positions. "We recommend that the state consider the consolidation of school districts," the report says. "… Having 19 districts appears excessive for the number of students and schools within the state."
In Iowa, where 248 of the 364 districts in 2007-08 had enrollments of less than 1,000 students, a study of eight merged school districts in the state has concluded that the consolidations did not hurt student performance. The University of Northern Iowa research found that student test scores and grades did not drop following the consolidations.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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