Friday, March 26, 2010

Rural school consolidation remains hot-button topic as states look to trim budgets

As states cut budgets while trying to keep as much money as possible going to classrooms, school-district consolidation is becoming a more attractive option. Maine mandated consolidation in several districts in 2007, "Vermont is considering a range of proposals that would dramatically reduce its number of school districts and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has asked a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a plan for reducing the state’s number of school districts by a third," Melissa Maynard of reports.

While savings promised by many consolidation plans are attractive, "Consolidation of anything related to schools is notoriously difficult, and doesn’t always turn out to provide the fiscal windfall states hope for," Maynard writes. Many plans promise the changes will be largely administrative as opposed to actually losing schools, but that hasn't stopped locals from fighting back. "It’s very easy to conflate consolidating school districts with consolidating schools," Jennifer Bradley, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution, told Maynard. "The subject seems to drop straight to, ‘We're going to lose our football team.’ I don't think anybody particularly rallies around their school district administration building."

Rural-school advocates say administrative consolidation is just the first step toward communities being forced to close their schools. "It's never about district consolidation, even when they say it is; it's always about closing schools," Marty Strange, policy program director at the Rural School and Community Trust, told Maynard. "School district consolidation is just a shoehorn. It's a lot more pleasant to talk about off wasteful administrators than it is to talk about laying off someone's child's teacher." In many small towns where the school district consists of only one school the terms are often synonymous, Maynard writes.

Brookings and the National Governors Association are among those encouraging states to consider some form of consolidation as a way to offset cuts to K-12 education, Maynard reports. "We are in such a financial crisis in this country that we can't afford to worry anymore about some of these considerations that in light of the financial situation appear minor," John Thomasian, director of NGA's Center for Best Practices. "Now that we are in such a clear and long-run fiscal climate of austerity, issues like school district consolidation have to be taken straight on." (Read more)

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