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Armed With Research, Ga. Legislator Takes Aim at Plans for Consolidation

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By Millicent Lawton

Although he is neither a career educator nor a member of the House Education Committee, Representative Charles Thomas of Georgia is making it his business to stockpile scholarly articles and books on the latest in educational research.

The source of Mr. Thomas's special interest in education these days lies in an issue whose impact stretches from his own House district to the overall state budget: whether Georgia should continue to encourage districts to consolidate schools by paying them to close small facilities and to build larger ones instead.

Mr. Thomas, whose own highschool alma mater is threatened with closure as a result of the state consolidation program, is leading an effort aimed at either abandoning the incentives or aiding districts that undertake renovation projects or buy new equipment as well as those that plan bigger buildings.

The Carroll County lawmaker, who co-chairs a task force that could recommend changes in the consolidation program, points to research showing that a bigger facility does not necessarily mean a better education for children. "The national trend is going away from large schools," he contended.

Given Georgia's pressing fiscal problems, Mr. Thomas also appears to be making progress with his argument that curbing the costly program would be a good way to save. "I hope I'm making converts on a daily basis," he said.

But others disagree, maintaining that many systems across the state have benefited by participating in the consolidation program, which has enabled them to build new schools to replace dilapidated structures.

The rewards of the program for local districts are substantial. A typical payment for erecting a high school, just one of many projects in a district's multi-year consolidation plan, might be about $15 million, said Tony Cook, superintendent of the Carroll County schools.

In any case, consolidation supporters argue, the incentives are not mandatory, so there is no reason for systems that do not wish to take part to protest the program.

"Big schools don't necessarily mean bad schools," said Senator John C. Foster, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, "just as little schools don't necessarily mean it's a good school. It all boils down to what kind of leadership you have."

Legislative Action Possible

The Joint Capital Outlay Study Committee is expected this week or next to convene another in a series of hearings and meetings to study the issue and the fate of the incentives.

Created this year by a resolution introduced by Mr. Thomas, who is now chairman of the panel's House delegation, the study committee may report its recommendations to the legislature when the new session begins in January.

Some observers think the state's continuing fiscal crunch could play a key role in deciding the issue.

The legislature has already held a special session this year to cut $380 million from the budget, and, Mr. Thomas noted, analysts now are projecting a further shortfall of $1OO-million to $150 million.

So far 85 systems-or 41 percent of all districts statewide--have been involved in the incentives program. Of those, 44 have completed a multi-year building plan, said Geraldine T. Hesse, a Senate senior policy analyst.

That has cost the state about $280 million in incentives between 1987 and this year, according to James W. Mullins, director of House research.

The state also has indicated it will provide another $197 million to participating districts to complete projects, officials said.

Many more districts--to date 151, or 82 percent of the state's systems-have shifted their school grade levels to fit the recommended configurations: K-5 for elementary, 6-8 for middle, and 9-12 for high school, Ms. Hesse said.

High rates of participation were just what policymakers had in mind in 1987, when they created the incentives as a "carrot"to help implement school reforms contained in the state's 1985 Quality Basic Education law.

Sponsors of the consolidation program emphasized that larger schools could provide a wider array of courses and do so more economically than several smaller schools.

In order to qualify for the incentives--which cover between 75 percent and 95 percent of the costs for building new school facilities-schools had to meet a minimum enrollment of at least 450 students for an elementary school, 625 for middle school, and 970 for a high school.

Small Is Beautiful

But Mr. Thomas said that recent educational research has undermined the rationale for the consolidation program by showing that smaller schools are better.

To buttress his view, Mr. Thomas cited an article published this summer in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, "School Size, Characteristics, and Outcomes," by William J. Fowler Jr. of the National Center for Education Statistics and Herbert J. Walberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In a study of 293 public secondary schools in New Jersey, the authors found larger schools correlated with poorer student outcomes in such areas as test scores, retentions, suspensions, employment, and college attendance.

"Smaller school districts and smaller schools... may be more efficient at enhancing educational outcomes," the article's abstract suggests.

Mr. Thomas also faulted the Georgia program for spurring districts to walk away from school facilities that may still be in good condition. While he does not begrudge districts that participate because they are experiencing enrollment growth or want to replace old buildings, he said, "Let's don't abandon perfectly good buildings to build bigger ones."

Another problem with consolidation is that it frequently angers citizens who do not want to part with their school and its beloved sports teams and mascots, with which the community heavily identifies.

Such feelings are evident in Mr. Thomas's Carroll County, located west of Atlanta along the Alabama border, where local residents seem directly at odds with the school beard's efforts to proceed with consolidation.

In 1989, county voters defeated a $20-million bend issue that would have represented the local contribution to make the building incentives a reality. The ballot issue failed decisively, with about 80 percent of voters against it.

Nevertheless, the Carroll County school beard vowed to go ahead with consolidation and last fall applied for the incentive funds. The consolidation plan would close four of the county's five high schools and build instead two large campuses, Superintendent Cook said.

One of those slated for closing would be Temple High School, with 650 students in grades 4-12, which Mr. Thomas attended and where his son is a 10th grader.

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