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School mergers seem more likely down the road

| Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011

Fast forward to the year 2020, maybe 2025.

The Valley News Dispatch sports department is putting together a preview of the area's newest football team: Valkisbur High School.

Valkisbur High School• Never heard of it?

You just might — sooner than you think.

Valkisbur is the merger of Valley, Kiski Area and Burrell.

Maybe that sounds far-fetched, but there's little doubt we could be on the verge of a new era of school mergers.

It might not reach the level of mergers from the 1960s, when about 2,000 Pennsylvania school districts were reduced to about 502 through consolidations. During the administration of former Gov. Ed Rendell, overtures were made to reduce the school districts to about 100, but that happened.

One voluntary merger occurred in Beaver County when Monaca and Center joined forces, but that marriage took about five years to consummate.

For merger mania to get into high gear, three things have to happen. Two already have happened, and a third might be on the way:

» A new Pennsylvania law streamlining earned income tax agencies takes effect Jan. 1.

Act 32 of 2008 reduces some 560 tax collection agencies to 69, roughly one per each of the state's 67 counties.

The new measure makes tax collection simpler and more efficient, particularly for employers.

Employers send municipal and school district withholding, usually 1 percent, to a central tax agency, which remands the money back to the local entities.

Less school districts per county would make remanding easier.

» State school subsidies were reduced greatly in Gov. Tom Corbett's first budget, causing a number of school districts to lay off teachers and look for ways to save money, including consolidating with neighboring districts.

Many school officials anticipate more subsidy reductions in the future, particularly because the state left about $532 billion in unanticipated tax collections on the table in June, instead of replenishing the school subsidies.

» State Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Connellsville, introduced a bill March 30 that would reduce the school districts to one per county.

On the surface, it sounds like a great way to save money. If that came about, it would be much easier to close high schools.

Already, there's grumbling from some Alle-Kiski Valley school officials that the three methods mentioned above are a backdoor way of creating school mergers. Many, however, support a new round of school mergers.

How much resistance would be put up with a new round of mergers• Certainly strong resistance at first.

But if real cost savings could be illustrated, resistance levels might diminish.

On Monday night, a Pittsburgh Public Schools hearing that discussed closing Oliver and Langley drew just six people.

That means the City League might have just six high schools next year. There were 15 during the 1970-71 school year.

Merger advocates always promote a study that shows that mergers save money. But the same study didn't take into consideration extra transportation costs with a geographically larger school district.

Could established schools like Valley, Kiski Area and Burrell really consolidate?

Maybe not.

But no one in their right mind would want to venture an opinion on what the configuration of local school districts will look like 10 years from now.

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