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K-State education professor discusses pros and cons of school district consolidation

By Jennifer Newberry

 

When schools face declining enrollment or financial troubles, one of the options that may be considered to resolve the problem is school district consolidation.

David ThompsonDavid C. Thompson, a Kansas State University professor of educational leadership, said school district consolidation is almost always due to financial considerations, such as declining enrollment or the desire to get more for the same amount of money.

The consolidation of school districts has several favorable arguments, Thompson said. A larger school can offer a wider curriculum. It can also run more efficient fiscally, as well as have an appropriate class size. School consolidation also would alleviate the lack of enrollment and financial concerns, he said.

While having larger class sizes can be an advantage of a larger school, it can also be a disadvantage. If two school districts combine and have class sizes of 10 students to 20 students, financially that is more attractive, he said. However, if two school districts combine and have class sizes of 30 students to 40 students, officials would have to question if that is a good idea educationally.

The consolidation of school districts has several opposing arguments, Thompson said. Residents might see a loss of community identity if their child's school district consolidates with another. For longtime community members, there is a loss of history because they might have once attended that school.

Some worry the loss of a school district will affect the local economy. Thompson said while schools cost money, school employees will spend a portion of their salaries in the local economy.

"I think a lot of people in this school efficiency discussion lose sight of the fact that schools both cost money and generate income for the people on main street, in the grocery store or the car dealer ship, because those folks who work in schools spend that money, too," he said.

At the core of the opposing arguments is that local residents consider a school to be part of the community, Thompson said.

"People will see the loss of a school as taking a shot at the heart of the community. The old phrase, 'If the school goes, it will be followed by the church and post office,' isn't entirely true," he said. "It does get, very accurately, at the notion that the school isn't just an expense for the community; it is part of the heart of the community and it is a financial benefit, even though people like to complain about taxes.

"It does get reduced in the end to dollars, but one of the difficulties in Kansas today is that we are so focused on money that we're not paying attention and celebrating the other good things about schools and communities, like student academic achievement and social benefits of education," he said.

Most school districts will try as long as possible to avoid consolidation, Thompson said. Communities might try to attract new residents, attempt cost-cutting measures or suggest a tax increase.

Once consolidation talks begin, it can be one year to several years before the school districts actually join because consolidation has a series of legal steps. Very few school districts -- a couple at the most -- have consolidated in Kansas during the last decade, Thompson said, with the consolidations due to extremely small enrollments.

"We go back to the reason, the idea, that communities want to keep their schools. They will fight to keep their schools," he said.

Summer 2005