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Pennsylvania legislators push plans for school consolidation

| Sunday, May 1, 2011

It's a question educators, legislators and taxpayers have been asking for years: Does Pennsylvania have too many school districts?

Across the state, there are 500 school districts, ranging in size from mammoth Philadelphia, with about 166,000 students, to one-building rural schools with fewer than 300 in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The patchwork of districts makes little sense to Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-South Union. He is pushing a plan that would require Fayette County's six districts to share a centralized administration, with one countywide school board and one superintendent, a move he said would cut costs.

"One bus contract," he explained. "One food contract. You buy in bulk. If you do it this way, you still have the identities of the schools, like they're still six school districts. "

Mahoney has secured a state grant to look at the potential impact of his plan. If the study, due this summer, shows potential savings and educational benefits, he plans to place administrative consolidation on the ballot as a referendum.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, wished Mahoney luck. Wozniak has been advocating for consolidation since the 1980s, to no avail.

"I see, every year, battles over school funding," he said. "It's just gotten less and less fair."

Wozniak referred to Cambria County's Westmont Hilltop, which is raising millage to contend with a depleted tax base, even as neighboring Richland School District enjoys rising revenue from an influx of businesses.

Wozniak introduced two district consolidation bills this legislative session. One would require districts with fewer than 2,500 students to combine with neighbors, and a second would require countywide administrations for every district except Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

"They can do it voluntarily, but they don't," Wozniak said.

Though the General Assembly reduced Pennsylvania's school districts from more than 2,000 to about 500 in the 1960s, the only voluntary merger occurred in 2009, when two Beaver County districts formed Central Valley.

Wozniak said he hopes more mergers will occur, especially in light of the $1.2 billion in education spending cuts that Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed for the 2011-12 school year.

"Out of crisis comes opportunity," Wozniak said. "Now we have a completely discombobulated system that's put together with Duct tape and chewing gum."

That sounded familiar to South Carolina State Rep. Murrell Smith, whose state is mulling district consolidation.

"We're in the same situation," as Pennsylvania, the Republican lawmaker said. "Years ago, we had hundreds of school districts. We've consolidated them over the years, and this is going to be the final push."

South Carolina has 85 districts. Smith and others would like to see the state adopt a system of 46 countywide school systems, as in Florida, Maryland and West Virginia.

For one county, at least, he will get his wish. The two school districts in Sumter County, which has a population of about 105,000, will combine on July 1 to comply with legislation passed at Smith's behest three years ago.

"I really think there's more ability to be innovative and creative when you have larger school districts," Smith said.

But the transition has not been easy.

"They fought it tooth and nail," Smith said. "There was a lot of anxiety among school employees and administrators and people who were getting their information from the school districts."

Many Fayette County school officials are skeptical of consolidation initiated by legislators.

"If this can be shown to benefit the taxpayers, it's a good move," Connellsville Superintendent David Goodin said. "But you also need to study whether it provides a better education."

Goodin said he grew up in North Carolina, which has one school district per county.

"When I was going to school, K through 12, I saw the superintendent of my school once in my life, on the day I graduated, when I walked across the stage and shook his hand," Goodin said. "I can assure you that a countywide superintendent is not going to be as visible to the local community."

Uniontown Area School Director Thomas "Bill" Gerke, on the other hand, said he supports Mahoney.

"You don't have to be a Wall Street businessman to see the savings," he said.

But research into the effects of school district consolidation has been mixed.

A study this year by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators compared Pennsylvania with six states that have countywide school systems. The group found that Pennsylvania spends less on central office staff and gets better standardized tests results than most of the other states.

A 2009 Pennsylvania School Boards Association analysis found that economically disadvantaged students tend to do better in smaller school districts, but this was related to smaller school size, not district administration. The same study found that personnel costs can increase in a consolidated district, since teachers tend to negotiate for salaries that match the highest-paying district in the merger.

The size of school districts varies widely between states, and a Tribune-Review analysis of U.S. Census data found a slight correlation between larger average district size and lower per-pupil costs. However, some states with larger-than-average school systems, including Maryland and Virginia, actually spend more per pupil than the national average.

"It's kind of hard to figure out where the right balance might be," said Michael Resnick, associate executive director with the National School Boards Association.

Reznick said that mergers can be beneficial for small districts with shrinking tax bases. But in practice, they can have trouble finding willing partners.

School directors in Carlynton, a district of fewer than 1,500 students in Allegheny County, asked their superintendent in March to reach out to neighboring districts and discuss a possible merger. Only Keystone Oaks was willing to talk about it, but the conversation never happened, and Carlynton decided to postpone further talks of merging.

"We do have money, we're funded — we're self-sufficient," said Patricia Schirripa, vice president of the school board. The topic arose because Gov. Corbett suggested it when he introduced his budget cuts, Schirripa said, not because Carlynton felt economic pressure.

"There's 500 of us, and this is not the first time we've heard mergers and consolidations, and it's not going to be the last," she said.

Additional Information:

At a glance

• Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, with an average enrollment of slightly less than 3,400 in 2010-11. That was only slightly smaller than the average school district size in the United States.

• The largest school district is Philadelphia, with about 166,000 students. The smallest is Austin Area School District in Potter County, with slightly more than 200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

• More than half of Pennsylvania's school districts have fewer than 2,500 students. One in seven districts has fewer than 1,000 students.

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education

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