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R.I. Report Doubts Savings From Merging Districts

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A plan to drastically reduce the number of school districts in Rhode Island appears doomed after a special commission issued preliminary recommendations saying that "regionalization" would not save as much money as originally hoped.

Gov. Bruce Sundlun last year proposed consolidating the number of school districts in the state from 37 to no more than 6. (See Education Week, May 22, 1991 .)

Late last month, the 18-member 21st Century Commission formed by the Governor to study regionalization and other ideas about the future of education in the state issued its preliminary findings. "The final estimates of potential savings (as opposed to the preliminary estimates) do not support wholesale movement to regionalization of the state education system," the panel concluded.

The state education department had estimated that regionalization could save more than $30 million a year, an attractive possibility in a small state struggling with severe financial difficulties.

The commission, however, concluded that such savings were impossible "unless we recommended closing schools or increasing class size," said Gary S. Sasse, the cochairman.

Mr. Sasse said a few key findings contributed to the commission's recommendations. For one, members found that Rhode Island's school districts are not disproportionately small or rural when compared with those in the rest of the nation.

Elementary Closings Barred

Moreover, the panel discovered, the existing secondary schools in the state are operating close to capacity, making consolidation expensive or unfeasible. Mr. Sundlun had specifically prohibited the commission from considering the closing of elementary schools.

The commission also was unable to find any significant correlation between district size and per-pupil spending, Mr. Sasse explained.

Harvey Press, the president of the National Education Association Rhode Island and a member of the commission, said the preliminary recommendations confirm some doubts he expressed when the Governor appointed the group.

"I just didn't believe the savings that were being projected," Mr. Press said. "The savings looked good on paper, but when dealt with in reality, they weren't there."

"The document shows regionalization shouldn't happen,"he added.

Mr. Press said he agrees with the panel's recommendation that school systems should work together more in voluntary cooperative ventures, especially in contracting for services and buying materials and supplies. The commission said the state department of education should serve as a clearinghouse to share information with districts and promote collaborative initiatives.

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