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Fighting Off the Push for District Consolidation Documented by Panel of Rural School Leaders

When Jay H. Burkhart, superintendent of the South Western School District in Hanover, Pa., asked attendants of an AASA panel who was faced with a potential school district merger, more than two-thirds raised their hand.

In recent decades, school districts in rural communities have consolidated to pool resources and — they thought — to save money.

Backed by parents, more districts have begun fighting rural consolidation. The goal, Burkhart said, is “to try to keep the power where it belongs: within the actual districts.”

For many districts, consolidation seemed inevitable. Small farm and industrial communities that were once booming have been shrinking as more people take jobs in urban areas. The loss of students has exacerbated funding issues for many districts in states that allocate education funding on a per-student basis.

Consolidation has some benefits. Students may be able to choose from a greater variety of programs and extra-curricular activities.

But there are drawbacks, and a number of other factors are making matters worse. As part the mergers, some towns close their schools and students, staff and faculty have to travel long distances for school.

Meanwhile, state legislatures have reduced spending for public education. In order to ease the process, and offer an incentive, some state governments give consolidated districts temporary funds for their mergers.

The district superintendents at the discussion shared financial data that showed their transportation and personnel costs actually increased after consolidation, which costs taxpayers additional money.

“There was no money-saving at all,” said Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators in Little Rock, Ark. “What it did was shift the burden of funding those schools from the state to now the school districts. So, school districts had a bigger funding issue than what they had in the past.”

At the same time that rural areas are facing increased financial pressures, they are having a tough time finding teachers to work in their communities.

Many districts have had to share staff members to compensate for the disparity, according to G.A. Buie, executive director of the United School Administrators of Kansas in Kansas City, Kan.

An unintended consequence of consolidation is the loss of community identity. When schools close as part of consolidation, it is like losing a piece of history.

“The school is the epicenter of everything that occurs in our rural communities,” said Jay Curtis, superintendent of the Park County School District in Powell, Wyo.

(Sarah Aie is a junior at Walnut High School in Walnut, Calif. and an intern for AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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