Too many school districts?

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As the budget fights in local school districts has played out, some parents have repeatedly called for their school boards to cut administrative costs.

State Sen. John Wozniak (D-35th) says he’d like to see that notion taken further by merging school districts together.

“I have districts out in Western Pennsylvania that are graduating 23 students. That’s just crazy,” said Wozniak, who has advocated for consolidation for decades. “We have incredible redundancy in insurance policies, bus contracts, superintendents, assistant superintendents, business agents, assistant business agents.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell (D) proposed creating a commission to study the issue with the goal of having no more than 100 school districts, a significant drop from the existing 500 school districts.

“I’d like to see some of these artificial political boundaries go. But, politically speaking, I think it’s going to be extremely difficult,” said Wozniak. “Most of the other states, you have countywide school districts. It works.”

In the years since Rendell left office, Harrisburg School Director Brendan Murray says the financial situation has shown a “drastic change” is necessary for his school district to sustain itself.

“It’s difficult to say whether it’ll be a great idea of Pennsylvania, but I have to admit we have way too many school districts,” said Murray. “It’s just inconceivable for that many, literally 500 different school districts, to sustain themselves on their own.”

When he released his recovery plan for Harrisburg schools, Chief Recovery Officer Gene Veno echoed that concern. His plan does not call for consolidation, but he says the district will have to make many changes.

“If this district continues the way it has been for the last five years, there will be no district in the third year,” Veno said about his five-year plan.

The Harrisburg School District and the York City School District both have been deemed by the state to be in moderate financial recovery. The state has placed the Steelton-Highspire School District in Dauphin County on financial watch status as its leaders try to pay the bills.

Gary Kraybill, of West Manchester Township in York County, moved back to the area in the 90s to discover the city schools are not at all what he remembered.

He said his main concern lately is “that this could lead to takeover, state-run schools. And who ends up on the short stick? The students.”

He’s been attending the financial recovery meetings for York’s schools and even drew up his own map with a proposal to merge York’s schools with surrounding districts.

“York Suburban High School, maybe the most compelling thing of all, and York City High School are exactly three miles apart. One is in a sea of plenty surrounding an island of poverty,” said Kraybill.

At one time, Pennsylvania had 2,277 school districts, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which studied the issue when Rendell made his proposal. You can read the study by clicking here.

That number dropped to 669 districts in the 1960s and again to about 500 in the 1970s.

Though advocates of consolidation point to potential cost savings in reduced administrative employees and other costs, the report says there is “no evidence that consolidation of schools will result in reduced expenses.”

The researchers cite issues such as how school districts would reconcile their respective debts, differing pay scales for teachers and even what the mascot should be.

“Smaller is better, smaller classrooms, smaller learning environments, smaller buildings. They result in safer schools, better outcomes,” said Todd Hosterman, senior research associate with the association. “All those things that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the cost of a merger actually pan out to cost money in the end.”

Juan Cruz, a parent of two students at Camp Curtin Elementary in Harrisburg, said his son has made noticeable progress and worried consolidation could lead to greater class sizes and his kid getting lost in the shuffle.

“My son, he’s improved a lot here. A lot. So, I would like that to stay the same,” said Cruz.

The report cites the boards of the Millersburg Area and Halifax Area school districts in Dauphin County, which considered consolidation recently, found merging would cost over $500,000. Though the districts decided not to merge, the researchers found the discussion about merging lead the districts to start working together more cooperatively.

Another factor: school pride. The schools as they are now are important parts of smaller communities, the researchers point out.

“On paper, regionalization looks good. But, the change has to happen locally. It has to be organic. We cannot force schools to come together,” said state Rep. Patty Kim (D-103rd), whose district includes schools in Harrisburg and Steelton-Highspire. “I think the ideal situation is having the school districts realize we’re stronger together. Let’s work together, put our resources together and give the kids the best education.”

Sen. Wozniak said he thinks he’s found some middle ground that would cut costs without removing the districts entirely. He’s proposed legislation that consolidate the administration at the county level.

“Instead of having 12 school districts in a county, you can still have those 12 school districts but you’re only going to have one superintendent, one assistant superintendent, one business agent,” said Wozniak. “That doesn’t take any teachers out of classrooms. That doesn’t change the football teams. That doesn’t change the political configuration of school districts, but it does save a significant amount of money.”