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Feature                                                   Pages 14-19

 

The Emotions of

Consolidation    

When school districts merge, the act of getting to that point can be gut-wrenching all around

BY SCOTT LAFEE

School district consolidation has a long history, dating back to at least the 1920s, when the movement was fueled by the notion that education would be vastly improved if there were fewer schools and they were run by more professional people.

The trend has continued ever since, occasionally picking up steam in tough economic times. The numbers are dramatic. In 1942, there were 108,579 independent school districts nationwide, according to the U.S. Census of Governments. In 2012, there were 12,880 — a decline of almost 90 percent.

These days, the motivation to merge typically isn’t about educational standards or professional educators. It’s about money. Or more precisely, it’s about not having enough or needing to save more. Consolidation proponents frequently cite anticipated cost savings associated with combining services, eliminating redundancies, centralizing management and other economies of scale. From a macro point of view, this translates into fewer employees to pay, fewer buildings to maintain and lower administrative costs.

“Financial stress is almost always the primary reason districts entertain possible mergers,” says William Silky, a veteran consolidation consultant based in Syracuse, N.Y. “However, many districts, particularly in the Rust Belt states, are also experiencing an out-migration, thus resulting in declining school enrollment.

“This makes it more difficult,” Silky says, “to continue to offer a broad secondary school curriculum, especially at the same time that state education departments (because of federal legislation and the Common Core) are demanding more from students. We refer to this as the perfect storm: fewer students, higher expectations for student achievement and, oh, by the way, less money to fund education.”

Research Claims
A case in point: In 2007, Maine legislators mandated that the state’s 290 school districts consolidate into just 80 districts or face penalties. Then-Gov. John Baldacci said the move was necessary to achieve maximum bang for the state’s educational buck.

“Our population was declining and we just had too much school administration,” he told Stateline, a news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Putting (school consolidation) into the budget irritated superintendents and the school boards, but I wanted to make sure we actually got it done.”

Over the next five years, 58 Maine school districts effectively disappeared. It’s harder to say whether the anticipated cost savings were realized.

In a 2010 School Administrator article, following up on an earlier study, the late William Duncombe and John Yinger, both professors at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, noted that consolidation can actually increase expenses, leveling up remaining salaries and benefits, for example, or boosting transportation and facility costs without compensating savings elsewhere. Buildings and teachers can be in places where they’re not needed; students may find themselves on long bus rides to schools farther away.

Duncombe and Yinger also noted indirect effects such as lower motivation and effort by staff and students and reduced parental involvement, all of which could result in new or exacerbated problems with associated costs.

Similar conclusions were drawn in a 2011 meta-study by Craig Howley, Jerry Johnson and Jennifer Petrie of Ohio University, published by the National Education Policy Center. They looked at dozens of studies and consolidations and asked what the research meant. Their conclusion: Claims of financial benefits through consolidation are mostly anecdotal and largely unsubstantiated. Educational benefits are “vastly overestimated.”

To be sure, consolidations can and do work, but success seems to be strictly a case-by-case phenomenon, dependent upon particular factors and circumstances related to the districts, communities and personalities involved.

Preservation Factor
It’s safe to say district mergers never come easily. The small preK-8 school districts of Grass Valley and Nevada City, both located in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, have discussed and debated consolidation for years. But public interest has been erratic, even indifferent. The state changed its funding formula, making a merger appear less attractive across the board.

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Eric Fredrickson, superintendent in Grass Valley, Calif., meeting with the district’s business manager, Jodi LaCosse, says changes in state funding make consolidation with a neighboring preK-8 district unlikely.
“At this time,” says Grass Valley Superintendent Eric Fredrickson, “the consolidation talks have ceased, and it is very unlikely that they will resume.”

When consolidation talks do occur, they are inherently fraught with tension, says Gary B. May, a former superintendent in Illinois who has been involved in several hotly disputed merger efforts. “I can’t speak for others or about other regions or states, but from my own observations, superintendents and community members alike would agree that contested school district reorganizations are extremely difficult and emotionally draining.”

The reasons go beyond the oft-cited loss of community identity experienced by the disappearing district.

“It’s also the potential loss of a perceived way of life as it should be, generational in the making,” May says. “Preservation of a community’s school district in its present form argues for maintenance of the status quo. Community people opposed to reorganization are seeking to restore equilibrium to their lives. They have already experienced their community’s decline, where just keeping what they have is hard enough. They organize to fight against what they can see. They fail to recognize the one opponent they cannot fight. That opponent is change.”

Unequal Benefits
Gladstone Area Public Schools is a 1,600-student K-12 system in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Eight miles down U.S. Highway 2 lies Rapid River Public Schools, a K-12 district of roughly 375 students. Despite their proximity, both districts boast distinct histories and communities. But both also grapple with the same challenges of rising costs and academic expectations countered by diminishing funds.

A few years ago, leaders in both districts began considering the prospects of a merger. Ultimately, they opted for something a little less than a full marriage, choosing only to share some services and personnel, which included the superintendent. Jay Kulbertis has been Gladstone superintendent since 2007 and Rapid River’s since 2012. He says history suggested complete consolidation wasn’t the way to go.

“Traditional consolidation tends to result in an imbalance in benefit. In our region, there was a great deal of consolidation in the 1970s, and many of those communities have not yet recovered from the deep scarring. This was a significant factor in our decision to look at ways to achieve the benefits without the damages.”

Those benefits derive primarily from combined central-office services, such as bookkeeping. “By crashing the back office and sharing personnel, primarily through attrition, we have achieved savings — and found additional cost savings through the collaboration,” Kulbertis says.

The process hasn’t been without its bumps, but the superintendent says by keeping the process open and transparent, the result has been satisfactory. “We took a planned and strategic approach to consolidating services provided by two proud school districts. Since I had a history of success in the area already, I was able to carefully nurture an environment of trust and communication. There was still fear, but we addressed every issue in public. There were no secrets and no surprises.”

Old Friends
In the spring and summer of 2013, consolidation was the name of the game in Minnesota. Eight districts combined into four, and nowhere did the process go more smoothly than in the merger of the Oklee (student population 435) and Plummer (292 students) school districts in the northwest corner of the state.

The districts already had a long history of shared resources, beginning in the 1980s with combined interscholastic sports programs. Other cost-saving collaborations followed in transportation, administration, community outreach, building construction and facilities planning. It culminated with last year’s official consolidation into the Red Lake County Central Independent School District 2906. The union was so unsurprising, observed The Bemidji Pioneer newspaper, that most voters thought the two districts were already one.

Superintendent James Guetter says final consolidation felt natural and inevitable.

“The initial steps had been taken to deal with declining enrollments without weakening the educational opportunities for our students and communities,” he says. “We made it through the rough times and began to see that there was a future for our schools. It was obvious that our future was as one district.”

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Scott Monson (center), testifying before the Minnesota Senate, assumed the superintendency of the 1,050-student Morris, Minn., Independent School District following last year’s consolidation of two districts.
Guetter concedes consolidation issues have arisen over the years, most often involving misinformation or unsubstantiated fears, but he adds, “After being together for so long, we’ve been able to build trust and build upon each school’s strengths. You do lose some individual identity, but the opportunity now exists to develop a new identity. You should have a plan to build the new identity. You have to measure what you are losing with what there is to gain.”

Few Choices
About 180 miles to the south of Oklee and Plummer, the Minnesota public school districts of Morris and Cyrus also were consolidating in 2013.

A mere eight miles of Highway 28 separate Morris and Cyrus, but in metaphoric terms, the districts were headed in different directions. Morris, a K-12 district, was larger, growing and in relatively good financial shape. Cyrus operated as a K-6 district. It had experienced significant enrollment decline over many years. In the words of Scott Monson, superintendent of Morris Area Schools, the district was “no longer financially feasible.”

By 2011, Cyrus officials began looking to consolidate. Morris seemed an obvious partner since students graduating from Cyrus already attended middle and high schools in Morris through a tuition agreement.

Over the next 18 months, leaders of the two districts in west-central Minnesota debated, cajoled and labored to create a practical, equitable consolidation plan. Failure was not an option. “In Minnesota, if districts are not able to reach a consolidation agreement with a neighboring district, one district simply dissolves. The potential ramifications of dissolution are not attractive to neighboring districts,” says Monson.

The consolidation, officially resulting last summer in the 1,050-student Morris Independent School District 2769, has worked smoothly so far. Monson credits the lengthy period of merger discussions and their very public nature.

“It’s difficult to determine which, if either, district has benefited greater. Morris benefited by having an expanded tax base, by receiving additional revenue for the Cyrus students and by receiving (state) ‘transition’ aid for two years,” he says. “Cyrus benefited by becoming part of an established school district that residents could send their students to, by not having to address several facility issues and by having a financially feasible solution for a school system for their students.”

A Fitting Action
In Nebraska not so long ago, Newcastle Public Schools looked as tough as its namesake, the Raiders. It was bold and aggressive. The district, located in the state’s rural northeastern corner, was small (just 130 students), but students took advanced classes and college credits via distance learning technologies. “We were really pushing in a direction where a lot of schools weren’t going,” Superintendent Joey Lefdal told the Sioux City Journal.

Digital delivery of instruction and other measures helped the district save money, but constant funding concerns and shortfalls spurred Newcastle to enter into a cooperative agreement with nearby Ponca High School in 2011 to share sports (except football) and other extracurricular programs. Within six months, Newcastle enrollment was cut in half as parents transferred their children to larger Ponca, 10 miles away.

It became an untenable trend. “Things were going to have to change,” says Lefdal, who has spent much of his 15-year career as a teacher, counselor and administrator in Nebraska.

Ultimately, that could mean Newcastle’s consolidation with K-12 Hartington Public Schools, 28 miles away.

Lefdal and colleagues are trying to work out details and potential futures, a complex and sometimes confusing process. In one merger scenario, taxes and educational levies for Newcastle residents appear to drop. In another, they rise.

“If all we are looking at is the financial aspect of consolidation, it could be a hard sell (to not choo

READ MORE:

The Mascot’s Central Place in District Reorganization

How Small Is Too Small for Merging?

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se the tax reduction scenario),” he says. “If we remember we are working toward improving the educational opportunities for our students, then it makes these decisions easier for the board and community.”

Easier, but not easy. For the superintendent of a small community’s schools, the emotional aspects of consolidation are the most difficult to manage. “Closing schools and moving along would be simple if it didn’t affect people,” says Lefdal. “Communities lose their identity. Board members are ostracized for their decisions. Administrators are bashed in the papers. Teachers lose jobs. Students could lose friendships.

“It is difficult to take the emotions out of decisions like this, but I also believe those emotions are what push us to make good decisions. My board is willing to take a shot to the jaw because they believe we are doing the right thing.”

Scott LaFee is a writer with the University of California at San Diego Health Science Center. E-mail: scott.lafee@gmail.com 

 

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