By Charlie Gerow
There are certainly valid arguments for reducing the number of school districts in Pennsylvania. “A European Union for education” and a reversion to thoroughly discredited “outcomes-based education” are not among them.
When Governor Pinchot was in office Pennsylvania didn’t have 500 school districts. There were more than 2,500 in those days. The 500 we now have represents dramatic consolidations, both legislatively and judicially mandated, in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
There are, no doubt, some districts that may want or need to merge with adjacent districts. The main reasons cited for such mergers is the potential cost savings and an improved educational product and student achievement.
Local school district choice, not mandates from the legislature or the courts, should determine whether or not there are such mergers.
School districts along the Mason Dixon Line have bandied about the concept of consolidation for years, looking below the border to Maryland which, like neighboring Virginia, has county-wide school districts.
Yet when the Independent Fiscal Office did a study of the 15 school districts in York County, they determined that merging those districts into a single county-wide district would not save the taxpayers any money. It suggested that such a move would both result in higher taxes for middle-income earners but would also produce only minimal savings in administrative costs.
Administrative costs have been a growing concern for taxpayers across the state. With superintendents and top administrators typically making deep into six figure salaries, those paying the bills have long wondered if there aren’t ways to economize.
However, the consolidations that have occurred have not produced the promised or hoped for savings. There are a variety of factors not related to the consolidations that account for this, but it is safe to say that consolidation isn’t necessarily a financial panacea.
Ultimately, whether or not mergers produce substantial savings hinges on whether or not the consolidated districts will do what’s necessary to curtail administrative expenses and reduce per-pupil costs.
Mergers and consolidations have not always produced higher quality education or improved student performance. Some studies suggest the opposite has been the case.
Additionally there have been other impacts that were not intended consequences of these mergers. Consolidations have often produced a sense of loss of community. This has been especially seen in sports, band and other extracurricular activities and opportunities for kids.
In Arkansas, where more than a third of their districts merged in the past dozen years, businesses closed and kids’ school bus rides got a lot longer. One superintendent called it “the disenfranchisement of communities.” He added, “I haven’t seen an increase in academic progress that I think we would have seen.”
Yet as communities struggle with skyrocketing pension obligations and administrative costs they’re looking for any reasonable solution.
They should certainly be able to merge, consolidate or merely cooperate with neighboring districts. To require them to merge would be a public policy mistake. Because of the impact on individual students and their local communities, local choice must be the by-word for any consideration of school district mergers.
Let’s not forget that we already have one county-wide school system. It’s the School District of Philadelphia. You can judge for yourself how that’s working for cost-saving and student achievement.