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Consolidation Plans Appear, and Disappear, in Some States

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Chet M. Blaylock, a member of the Montana State Senate's education committee, introduced a school-district consolidation bill this year and learned firsthand just how volatile an issue consolidation can be. "It's not a pleasant thing. I was called everything but a decent human being."

Mr. Blaylock proposed a bill that would have provided financial incentives for the consolidation of 41 high schools that have fewer than 100 students and are less than 20 miles apart. (Any school more than 20 miles from any other would have been granted "isolated status," Mr. Blaylock said, and would not have been affected.)

Under Montana's finance formula, Mr. Blaylock said, the smaller a school is, the more state aid it receives per pupil, with the result that some schools receive as much as five times the amount of aid per pupil than others do. His bill would have removed the financial attractiveness of maintaining a school with fewer than 100 students.

Mr. Blaylock, who has been a superinten-dent of a 66-student school in northern Montana, said he believes that consolidation of the schools would save money and would increase educational opportunity for students--two arguments often advanced by consolidation proponents.

"When a school is that small, you have to ask teachers to teach in several disciplines, and they can't be equally prepared in all," he said. "And I just don't think you get a lot of mental stimulation in, say, an American history class with two students."

Following a hearing at which the state superintendent of public instruction, a spokesman for the Montana School Boards Association, and superintendents from several small schools testified against the bill, it died in the education committee.

Mr. Blaylock said he has no plans to reintroduce his bill unless he finds more support in advance.

Consolidation-related measures have appeared in several state legislatures this year and have met with the same kind of opposition.

An Idaho legislator's attempt to pass a resolution to form a committee to study the idea of consolidating some of Idaho's 115 school districts was voted down in committee.

A North Carolina select education committee proposal to decrease the number of school districts from 143 to 100 "never got off the ground," said Tom I. Davis, a spokesman for the education department, "because of flack from editorial writers, special groups, and most of the people in the 43 city school systems and some of the counties."

"Unless somebody brings it up again, that's it," he said.

Consolidation was not always so unsuccessful, many educators recall. In 1930, there were 127,000 school districts in America. By 1950, the total had shrunk to 83,718; by 1960, there were 40,500; and by 1970, there were 17,995. Today, there are approximately 15,600.

Waves of Consolidation

There have been several waves of rural school-district consolidation in this country, according to Jonathan P. Sher, editor of Education in Rural America, a 1977 book that outlines the history of the consolidation movement and argues for the preservation of small rural schools.

Mr. Sher, who is now an associate dean at the school of education at North Carolina State University, argues that consolidation has been the most successfully implemented educational policy of the last 50 years, and that it succeeded because of a belief that consolidated schools would operate more efficiently, would cut down on administrative costs, and would offer a wider range of educational opportunities.

But Mr. Sher says it is his belief, and the belief of many other small-school advocates, that these supposed benefits of consolidation have not been proven in research.

Mr. Sher and other rural-education advocates are against consolidation for several reasons. They contend that certain "diseconomies," such as increased transportation costs, can offset the gains of increased efficiency that those who would consolidate promise.

"It all depends on what you value," Mr. Sher said. "If all you're after is administrative efficiency, sure, it's possible to have one superintendent doing the job three others did. But what gets lost is the likelihood that he knows anything about the kids and the community."

W. Timothy Weaver of Boston University, a researcher who, along with John Grasso of West Virginia University, is working on a study of the effects of high-school consolidation in a West Virginia district, says they have found no great financial gains from increased operating efficiency, due mainly to similarly increased transportation costs.

In a four-year study of the West Virginia district, which consolidated eight high schools into five, the researchers found no gain in test scores and a "significant" increase in the dropout rate.

"For one of the three high schools closed," Mr. Weaver said, "in the first year, one-half of the students dropped out from the junior and senior high school."

The researchers also found a 50-percent reduction in all extracurricular activities among reassigned students, mainly because of travel inconvenience.

Emerged as Major Issue

In Arkansas, where consolidation has emerged as a major issue for the first time in several years, three bills relating to merging school districts have been introduced in the legislature this session.

One bill, not expected to pass, would require districts with fewer than 350 students to consolidate if they are levying less than the average millage rate on property tax.

Arkansas has 371 school districts, and 111 of them have fewer than 350 students.

Lyle R. French, president of the Arkansas Education Association (a group that supports the bill) contends it would save $15 million to $20 million a year, mostly in decreased administrative costs.

In Arkansas, administrative costs as a percentage of spending per pupil are the fourth highest in the nation, Mr. French said.

A Senate bill, which has been defeated, would have consolidated schools into county-wide administrative districts except for districts with 5,000 or more students. The change would have given the state an estimated 87 districts. The aea says the bill would have saved the state between $35 million and $40 million per year.

Another bill, which has passed in the House, is known as "The Quality Education Act of 1983." It would allow the state board of education, through an appointed committee, to draw up new school standards, with the stipulation that any school failing to meet these standards by 1987 could be merged with a neighboring school district.

"This is not really a consolidation bill," Mr. French said. "A similar bill passed in 1979, but because the standards were so low we saw no significant consolidation take place."

In Mississippi, where consolidation may be one result of an ambitious education-improvement package passed by the legislature in December, "It's war," said Frank I. Lovell, executive director of the state's educational-finance commission. "There's quite a bit of flack already and there will be more."

The commission is drawing up a school-district consolidation plan that is due in June 1985. Mr. Lovell said it will probably recommend the elimination of a third of the state's 154 school districts.

A bill introduced in the Minnesota legislature would place existing school districts in administrative units containing 11,000 students. It would not alter present school-district boundaries or affect school boards in the districts.

In West Virginia, a small-schools coalition called the West Virginia Education Project (wvep) is already preparing for a fight against a consolidation move that may result from the reorganization of school systems ordered by Judge Arthur M. Recht. The judge ruled, in Pauley v. Bailey, that the state's school-finance system is unconstitutional.

It will face strong opposition. Says Linda B. Martin, director of wvep: "The crux of the matter is that we see our schools as the center of our community," she said. "To remove schools from where our children live takes the heart out of it."

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