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Okla. Reform Law Seen Hastening Pace of School Consolidation

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With a combination of financial incentives and toughened state mandates, Oklahoma's controversial education-reform law has substantially sped up the pace of consolidation among school districts, officials said this month.

In the 19 months since November 1989, state records indicate, the number of districts has been reduced by 25, to 581, as a result of consolidation or annexation.

The 11 years between 1978 and 1989, by contrast, saw a net loss of just 17 districts in the state.

The consolidation provisions were included in the 1990 reform law, known as House Bill 1017, at the urging of those who argued that many of the state's districts were too small to provide an effective and efficient education.

But while the merger movement continued, the fate of HB 1017 as a whole appeared to be in doubt. The state supreme court this month cleared the way for a statewide referendum on the measure, which Gov. David Walters has scheduled for Oct. 15.

Critics of the $225-million law had argued for months that state voters should have a chance to accept or reject the tax hikes used to fund its reform programs, which include early-childhood programs, increased teacher salaries, and extensive curricular reforms.

And, although almost all of the current round of mergers have been voluntary, observers noted that resistance to consolidation remains strong in rural areas.

A symbol of many small towns' fierce determination to preserve the independence of their schools was provided by Wesley E. Watson, superintendent of the 110-student Big Cabin school district.

Mr. Watson recently attracted national attention when he used his own money to buy land for a trailer park. By offering free services for families with children, he hopes to attract enough new students to enable his district to survive.

$35-Million Incentive Fund

HB 1017 provided a $35-million fund for incentive payments to encourage small, "inefficient" districts to merge, said Ed Winn, administrator for voluntary consolidation at the state education department.

Confronted with steady or shrinking enrollment and rising costs, some rural districts have elected to take the state up on its offer, which, in the case of a new district made up of two defunct ones, amounts to $500 for each of up to 1,000 children.

New districts made up of more than two defunct ones receive more assistance money, while a district that maintains its integrity while annexing students from a extinct district receives a smaller payment.

Of the 17 district closings between 1978 and 1989, just 9 were voluntary, according to Mr. Winn. Since November 1989, all but 1 of the 25 districts willingly closed its doors.

Mr. Winn said he expects 2 to 3 more districts to commit to consolidation before the summer is out. The deadline for districts to at least express an intent to consolidate or annex is Sept. 1.

The money--which Mr. Winn described as a "break-even proposition" to defer the first-year costs of reorganization--may go toward paying the severance wages of laid-off teachers; purchasing textbooks, furniture, or computer or laboratory equipment; hiring teachers for new programs; or even building new classrooms if the district stands at 85 percent of its bonding capacity.

So far, the state has doled out roughly $4 million to districts that voluntarily consolidate.

Mr. Winn also noted that some districts may have decided to merge in order to better meet the mandates of HB 1017, including more courses and higher teacher pay.

"They have to put together enough students to generate enough money," he observed.

A Point of Pride

Despite the apparent benefits of consolidation or annexation, the decision does not come easily, Mr. Winn explained.

"It's a point of pride," for a community to have its own school district, said Mr. Winn, who has traveled to small communities to answer questions about consolidation.

"The school is the social center" so that a school basketball game is an "event" that draws the whole town, he added.

Some are "very determined" to keep their districts, he said, because they "relate the loss of the school district with the loss of their community."

"They're not going to [consolidate] unless they have to," Mr. Winn said.

Indeed, Mr. Watson is hoping to prevent it altogether.

Mr. Watson, whose district 55 miles northeast of Tulsa has its elementary and high schools on one campus, said that even 40 new students would generate more than $100,000 in state aid for his4$611,000 budget.

So he plans to develop a 40-space trailer park on 15 acres he purchased just outside of town and offer hookups rent-free for one year to families with school-age children.

The plan, which has received preliminary approval by the city council, could be a reality by September, Mr. Watson said. He has already received inquiries from interested families from as far away as Tampa, Fla.

Mr. Watson said his gesture stems from the tiny community's help to him when he was seriously injured in a recent car accident.

"I had a town teach me a lesson in compassion and charity," he said, "and now I'm applying the lesson."

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