Split Identity: Court To Decide Fate of School on
Union Elementary School's history belies its name.
Since 1921, under an interstate agreement, the school has served children from the farming communities of College Corner, Ohio, and West College Corner, Ind. The current schoolhouse itself, a red-brick structure built in the 1920's, straddles the state border; half of the basketball court is in Ohio, half in Indiana.
To complicate matters even more, the school district takes in sections of four counties and four townships, each with a different tax rate.
When a school day is canceled because of snow, children who live on the east side of the line must make it up later in the year, while students on the west side stay home because Indiana does not require make-up days.
When the joint community school board meets, the members from Indiana must be sure their chairs are on the west side of the building; otherwise, their actions have no force under state law.
Differing State Laws
When a non-tenured teacher was not rehired two years ago, the case landed in federal court because the two states' laws differ on procedures for contract renewal.
"There are a lot of issues like that, and they get worse every year," says Fred W. Minnick, who as superintendent of schools in Union County, Ind., oversees his state's half of the operation. "You have regulatory agencies in both states. If they provide regulations that are directly in conflict, the school gets caught in the middle of it."
In an effort to settle the matter once and for all, school officials have reopened an 18-year-old lawsuit in U.S. district court in Dayton, Ohio.
In 1964, a federal district judge ordered that the school board, made up of seven Indiana residents and five Ohioans, share operating costs on a pro-rata basis, depending on how many children from each state are enrolled, and share building costs 50-50. According to the 1964 order, the board is to operate without "interference from outside agencies" and must resolve conflicts between the two states' education laws by adopting the "stricter" of the two.
"But more stringent by whose idea?" Mr. Minnick asks.
The case, College Corner Local School Board v. Union County Schools Corp., may eventually answer that question. In its current incarnation, the suit centers on the right of the the Indiana Education Employment Relations Board to regulate the school's labor practices--practices that under Ohio law are not subject to review by a state labor agency.
"We feel that the [employment board] is an 'outside agency' and has no jurisdiction" under the terms of the 1964 order, Mr. Minnick says.
But the federal judge in Dayton has not even decided yet whether he has jurisdiction to decide the case. Oral arguments on that issue were presented last February, Mr. Minnick says, but the court has not yet responded. "I don't know if we'll ever get it settled," he adds. "But if it ever gets resolved, I think it'll clear up some other questions, too."
Most of the school district's problems are resolved by the joint board or in court, according to Jan Regnier, an associate superintendent of public instruction in Indiana. Generally, only financial disputes find their way to the state education agency. "If the Indiana board and the Union County schools decided it was not in their best interest to continue the program for Indiana youngsters who live at West College Corner, they could pull out," Mr. Regnier says.
Similarly, the Ohio Department of Education has seldom become involved in what it considers to be a "local matter." But G. Robert Bowers, assistant state superintendent, acknowledged that the difficulties in College Corner are severe and speculated that it might be preferable to assign control of the system to one of the two states, with the other state paying tuition on behalf of its residents.
"We can bridge municipal lines, we can bridge county lines, and still make it work," Mr. Bowers said. "But when you go across state lines, the local difficulty probably outweighs any advantage that might come from it."
While the children appear to be unaffected, according to school officials, virtually every administrative task is fraught with confusion. When Union Elementary is up for accreditation, evaluators from Indi-ana and Ohio sit on opposite sides of the table, working from different checklists.
The school's principal, Ellen Walters, supervises children and staff members from both sides of the state line, and reports to both boards. In addition, she serves as the local superintendent on the Ohio side.
Union Elementary serves about 360 children from kindergarten through 8th grade. Upon graduation, the Ohio children attend Indiana's Union County High School; Ohio pays tuition to the Indiana district--a common arrangement in border communities.
Transportation and Credentials
About the only tasks that do not cause problems are transportation and teachers' credentials. Each state provides transportation for its own pupils. And the two states have a reciprocal teacher-certification arrangement.
"In my own personal opinion," Mr. Minnick says, "I do think we'd be better to have some change in operation, to put the school under the rules of one state or the other. Something has to be done to change how it's being operated. There are a lot of alternatives. The last resort would be to close it."
In the hope of finding help from administrators experienced with such problems, Indiana officials searched for a similar situation. While interstate agreements were not unusual, they say, the schools involved in them were squarely under the control of one of the states involved. They were unable to find a school district that shared College Corners's system of shared governance, finance, and policymaking.
When he accepted the Union County superintendency, Mr. Minnick recalls, his predecessor gave him a tour of the county's schools.
"When we came out of that building [Union Elementary], I looked back at it and asked my predecessor how long it would take to get used to that operation. He said, 'Fred, don't worry about it. You'll be used to it in 10 years.'
"Well, I'm going on year number seven now, and I'm still not used to it."