Distrust of government keeps school district consolidations at bay

| Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

They squeezed more kids into classrooms, cut field trips and combined high school athletics.

But for all the expenses Pennsylvania public schools shaved in the past several years, district mergers that could trim millions of dollars remain mostly off the table, despite research showing selective consolidation might deliver savings statewide of almost $100 million annually.

“It's the nature of Pennsylvania. We do not trust large government. Overcoming that is very difficult,” said state Sen. John Wozniak, a Cambria County Democrat who pressed for an independent study of school consolidation in 2006. “Somebody's got to talk about it — talk about it consistently and loudly.”

The state-financed study by Standard & Poor's reviewed 34 theoretical mergers that together might save taxpayers $81 million each year, including in the Allegheny Valley, Blacklick Valley, Rockwood and Western Beaver school districts. Savings would hinge on whether consolidated districts could curtail overhead expenses and reduce high per-student costs to match state averages, researchers found.

Wozniak said other districts could cut millions more by taking aggressive steps to share superintendents and other top administrators whose compensation can amount to more than $100,000 each. The idea roughly mirrors school consolidation in states such as Arkansas, where more than a third of school districts have merged since 2002.

Critics there and in Harrisburg say the idea isn't a universal fit for public schools navigating tight budgets and funding gaps. They warn the approach doesn't always bring net savings and can undercut a community's sense of self, hollowing out pillars of local life, disassembling hometown sports teams and plunking kids on longer bus rides to unfamiliar schools.

“I like the school small. The kids know each other from kindergarten. The parents all know each other. The teachers all know each other,” said Amy Kokoski of Cheswick, a Springdale Junior-Senior High School alumna whose father and daughters attended the same school.

“The kids get to participate in a lot of things because there aren't a lot of kids.”

The S&P study found the Allegheny Valley School District, which includes Springdale High, and the nearby Riverview School District might save several million dollars a year by merging. Allegheny Valley Superintendent Cheryl Griffith said the community “has a lot of ownership” in its district, which did not study S&P's findings.

“School consolidation changes the environment for families,” said John Yinger, a professor of economics and public administration at Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “Some families might really appreciate the personal contact with a teacher they get in a tiny school. Or, they might appreciate the relatively short distances to a kid's football or tennis practice.”

Research shows savings are greatest when small districts of several hundred students combine, Yinger said. Consolidate districts of a few thousand students or more and “the economies of scale seem to fizzle out after a while.”

Weighing the numbers

Pennsylvania families watched state and local officials compress the 2,361 districts on the map in 1959 into 505 by 1980. Mergers slowed through the 1980s after a 1981 court order desegregated and combined the Edgewood, General Braddock, Swissvale, Churchill and Turtle Creek districts into the Woodland Hills district.

Only the former Monaca and Center Area districts in Beaver County successfully joined since, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. They voluntarily united in 2009 to form Central Valley School District.

“It wasn't just about finances. It also was about academics, extracurricular activities and opportunities for kids,” said Central Valley Superintendent Nicholas Perry. He said the high school offers more advanced placement classes — one in each discipline — and the district reduced property taxes about 2 mills in the former Center Area district.

The efficiencies follow predictions in the S&P report, which the state Senate ordered in 2006. Findings in June 2007 revealed districts with fewer than 500 students spent an average of $9,674 per student — a roughly 20 percent premium over districts several times larger.

“There are districts in Pennsylvania that are graduating fewer than 20 students. That's insane,” said Wozniak, who lamented special-interest groups that “scream at” lawmakers about streamlining school expenses and contracts.

S&P researchers discovered per-student spending tended to decline as districts grew, bottoming out around $8,057 in districts of 2,500 to 2,999 students.

“Average per-pupil spending tends to go back up again as enrollments exceed 3,000 students,” they wrote. “Using this empirically observed pattern, it appears that district consolidations that result in combined enrollments below 3,000 students would be more likely to save money.”

Frustrated lawmakers said smaller districts whose budgets underwent review by S&P analysts did little to change in light of the evaluation.

“I don't believe it was taken very seriously,” said Brian Uplinger, superintendent of Central Greene School District in Waynesburg, where the study looked at a theoretical merger with the smaller Southeastern Greene schools. He said the review lacked depth, nuance and consultation with local leaders about teacher contracts, debt ratios and overhead costs.

“Those types of things really need to be weighed heavily. Having the right, key people at the table, rather than being told this is the way it's going to happen, would be much better,” said Uplinger, who agreed Pennsylvania would benefit from targeted mergers.

For some districts, the biggest challenge can be finding an enthusiastic partner. Longtime interest in consolidation in the 350-student Midland Borough School District in Beaver County fell flat with adjacent districts amid racial, socioeconomic and other community tensions.

The Midland school board sends teenagers to East Liverpool High School in Ohio under the only such cross-state arrangement in Pennsylvania.

Midland's high school closed in 1986 when the tax base sank during the steel industry collapse, eroding the population base and academic programs.

“We always said, ‘Why can't our kids have the same schooling the kids in Mt. Lebanon have?' ” said school board member Daniel Zuppe. “What makes our kids so much different from them?” Affluent Mt. Lebanon consistently scores among top schools in the state.

Community commitment

Condensing school systems stirred resistance in other states. Arkansas watched businesses close and bus rides get longer in towns that lost public schools, a shift one superintendent called the disenfranchisement of communities.

“I haven't seen an increase in academic progress that I think we would have seen,” said Jimmy Cunningham, top executive of Hampton School District in Hampton, Ark.

National Rural Education Association Director John Hill supports state incentives that would strengthen efficiency in rural districts without outright consolidation.

Country schools “are the center of their communities,” said Hill, a Purdue University professor. “When you look at a lot of small communities and small towns, if a community loses its school, it hastens the death of that community. You lose the school, you lose the post office — there's not much left.”

The Mash family of Jeannette bleeds red and blue.

Eugene and Nancy Mash graduated from Jeannette High School in 1958. Their son Greg, 46, graduated in 1985, and his wife, Anita, in 1984. Grandson Michael, 21, graduated in 2010 and grandson Tony, 16, is a junior in the district.

Anita Mash, 47, a Jeannette School Board member and teacher in neighboring Hempfield Area School District, said a merger would devastate the city's 9,600 residents.

The walls of the high school gym bear witness to the history of the district. Banners proclaiming state, WPIAL and section championships in football, basketball, track, soccer and wrestling hang from the ceilings.

“The public would be very upset,” she said. “This is a very community-oriented school district.”

Gov. Tom Corbett's administration has said it supports consolidation if communities want it.

Corbett should promote consolidation for districts that could benefit, perhaps through financial sweeteners or other encouragement, said Sen. Elder Vogel, R-New Sewickley.

“The governor has to take the bull by the horns and initiate the conversation,” Vogel said. “I believe it has to start at the top, in the governor's office.”

Adam Smeltz and Richard Gazarik are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com. Reach Gazarik at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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