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Pa. lawmakers stall on school mergers

Work has not yet begun on governor’s call earlier this year to reduce public school districts.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Ed Rendell clearly aimed to jump-start the debate when he called for Pennsylvania to drastically reduce its number of public school districts.

In his February budget address, Rendell asked for a legislative commission to map out a plan for reducing the number of districts from 500 to 100 or fewer as a way to shrink costs, slash taxes and bolster student performance.

He succeeded in getting people talking — particularly those who don’t like the idea — but three months later, state lawmakers do not seem eager to take up the idea.

The concept is a tough sell in a state where balkanized government and local control over decision-making are ingrained, centuries-old values — and bitter memories of a massive district consolidation effort a half-century ago have not entirely faded.

Stinson Stroup, director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said he wants to see evidence that 100 districts will operate more efficiently than 500.

“I hate to pronounce it dead, but I don’t think anybody has yet made a case for it — including the governor,” he said.

Donna Cooper, who as Rendell’s policy secretary helps devise the administration’s education initiatives, said 100 was “a nice round number” that would push many areas to countywide districts while ensuring that students in highly populous counties are not crammed into overly large districts.

Cooper said consolidation would help correct inequities in academic performance as well as tax structure in a state with many smaller districts. Currently, more than 200 districts enroll fewer than 2,000 students.

“When you ask Pennsylvanians if it is acceptable that, within a mile of each other, one child’s education could be twice as well-funded as another,” the vast majority says it is not, Cooper said.

Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak has said that only 10 states have more school districts than Pennsylvania, and many of the states with the best records of student achievement have fewer.

A study by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association identified at least a dozen other states that have considered or implemented similar consolidation and merger proposals in recent years.

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, is sponsoring legislation to establish a merger commission. Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr., a Philadelphia Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said the topic may get more attention this summer as part of state budget negotiations.

But Republicans are less supportive, with House Minority Leader Sam Smith of Jefferson County calling the proposal a smoke screen to distract attention from the state’s fiscal problems and Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeff Piccola of Dauphin County saying a 500-to-100 consolidation is not currently feasible.

The state’s budget crisis has largely overshadowed the issue in Harrisburg, as the governor acknowledged recently.

“I understand, with all the things we’re dealing with, why that’s slightly on the back burner,” Rendell said.

Pennsylvania’s last major school-district consolidation unfolded over several years in the late 1950s and ’60s. It was a state-mandated process that eliminated about four-fifths of what were then roughly 2,300 districts.

Back then, the vestiges of the one-room schoolhouse system had left behind some districts that did not actually educate anyone but still managed to spend thousands of dollars on secretaries, treasurers, solicitors and tax collectors.

It was a rocky process that generated countless legal challenges and became fodder in state campaigns, prematurely ending some state lawmakers’ political careers.

The thick stack of protest letters stored among the papers of then-Gov. William Scranton in the state archives includes a November 1965 letter from a Sharon Hill woman urging the repeal of the School District Reorganization Act.

The law, she said, “tells us where to send our children for school, increases our taxes without any educational benefits, destroys the concept of the neighborhood school, lessens the opportunity for pupil participation and leadership in athletics and extracurricular activities, confiscates community property without just remuneration, presents costly and hazardous pupil transportation problems (and) necessitates a complete reassessment of all county property.”

These days, people opposed to Rendell’s idea warn that mergers will result in higher taxes for many homeowners and create problems if districts are forced together despite different standardized test scores, levels of long-term debt and teacher contract terms.

While Rendell has said mergers will not require closing any school buildings, critics predict that would eventually happen, eliminating a source of pride and self-identification for some communities and resulting in longer school bus rides for some children.

Jay Himes, director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said he “would be hard-pressed to say, even in some of the smaller districts, you would achieve significant savings” if building closures are taken off the table.

A 2007 study by Standard & Poor’s commissioned by the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, a nonpartisan research arm of the General Assembly, found that some school districts might realize considerable savings by merging with neighbors. But it also cited practical and political barriers to the process.

It said the best candidates were relatively high-spending, smaller districts that would combine with larger, lower-spending districts. But it warned there is no evidence that larger school districts perform differently than smaller ones on the Pennsylvania System of Student Assessment tests.

For the 660-student Sullivan County School District in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, the study suggested pairings with five of its neighboring districts. So far there has been no serious consideration of a merger, said Sullivan Superintendent Kathryn Gruber.

In Sullivan, which already spends $1 million on transportation out of a $12 million budget, the idea of even longer bus routes is a nonstarter.

Gruber predicted widespread opposition if the state were to mandate mergers.

“You’re going to have the neighborhood students and parents and community members be very vocal and attend meetings to oppose it,” she said.

School systems around the state are already cooperating across district lines in many ways, from intermediate units that provide services to students with special needs to the joint purchasing of office supplies, books, health services and utilities. In some areas, athletes play for neighboring teams when their districts do not offer a particular sport.

A pending merger of the Monaca and Center Township school districts north of Pittsburgh is the state’s first merger in decades. The new Central Valley School District will be established in July.

But there is plenty of skepticism about the suggestion that cutting out 400 school districts will produce substantial savings by requiring fewer superintendents or other top administrators.

The study by the school boards’ association, which opposes legislatively mandated mergers and consolidations, said cost savings were unlikely, student achievement may suffer and the sense of community in some areas might be disturbed.

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