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Opposition Foils Measure To Shut Down Small Districts in Washington State

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A strong show of opposition by a group of mostly rural residents has persuaded Washington State lawmakers to drop a bill that would have closed a host of small school districts.

The legislation died in the Senate education committee last month after about 200 protesters, alerted by the Washington Association of School Administrators, packed a hearing on the measure.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Skratek, would have closed districts with fewer than 150 K-8 students. It would have affected 59 of the state's 296 districts, officials said.

Under current law, districts must be disbanded only if they have five or fewer students.

The goal of the bill was to shave administrative costs by dissolving districts, not by closing schools, explained Larry Davis, a senior analyst for the education committee. The bill provided a one-year window in which no schools could be closed by the district taking over the old one.

Still, Mr. Davis acknowledged--and the hearing protest illustrated--district consolidation evokes strong feelings when perceived as a threat to a small community's identity.

Marcia Costello, the assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, said that the bill was overzealous because the state has already undertaken extensive efforts to merge districts.

Between 1910 and 1950, she noted, the number of districts in the state shrank from 2,710 to 560. And another 264 districts dissolved by 1990.

The districts that remain now, she said, "are all there for some significant reason,'' such as geographical necessity.

Ms. Costello noted that the 59 districts proposed for closure under the defeated bill have an average of fewer than one full-time-equivalent administrator.

"These districts have already achieved administrative efficiencies,'' she said, with some sharing administrators.

The savings to the state's $8 billion K-12 budget would have been minimal, Ms. Costello argued, because in the districts in question, the cost of running a school board is only $2,000 to $4,000 a year.

"You're not saving very much and you're losing a great deal of public good will and involvement,'' she said.

However, the defeated bill could be resurrected in next year's legislative session, Mr. Davis said.

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