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Pittsburgh Plan Spurs Debate Over Merits of Merger

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A proposal to roll 43 Pittsburgh-area school districts into one has divided the region over the question: Is big better?

The merger would create a single school board responsible for more than 163,000 students and make Allegheny County, Pa., the nation's 10th-largest school district.

Supporters say such a move would clear the administrative clutter and equity issues that hamstring the county's 300 schools. Others in the region, however, fear becoming a "megadistrict."

At the center of the controversy is William W. Cooley, the proposal's author and a professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Cooley's fans and critics alike say his plan is a courageous effort to shake up a region riddled with poor schools yet fiercely committed to local control.

"I think Bill did something that was heroic," said Felicia B. Lynch, the president of the Allegheny Policy Council, a coalition of business and community leaders focused on education issues.

Funding by Need

Mr. Cooley argued for a merger in a January research paper outlining school inequities and inefficiencies in the region.

Vast differences in wealth separate the county's districts. Per-pupil spending in some tops $9,000; the poorest districts spend $5,500.

Allegheny County wrestles not only with the poverty of inner-city Pittsburgh but also with dying steel communities. It is home to two of the state's three districts whose financial difficulties have led to takeovers. (See Education Week, Nov. 24, 1993.)

Mr. Cooley contends in his paper that operating many districts wastes precious resources by duplicating central services. Under his proposed merger, a county school board would collect taxes--levied at the same rate throughout the county--and distribute the money according to need.

Individual schools would be governed by principals and school councils made up of parents, teachers, and other staff members.

Such site-based management makes even huge districts seem small and has worked in such dissimilar places as Chicago and Prince William County, Va., Mr. Cooley said last week in an interview.

"I don't like bigness either,"he said. "But if you take seriously the good news from these other places, then you understand that the size of a district doesn't matter."

Alarmed by Big Government

Soon after the paper was published, John R. Craig Jr., the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaper, praised the one-district idea in an editorial.

The business community also supported reducing the number of school administrative units. Ms. Lynch of the policy council argued that the glut of districts exacerbates inequities and leads to parochial solutions to a regional problem.

"If there's a hole in the boat," she said, "it doesn't matter whether you're on the top deck or lower deck. You have to fix it."

Critics of Mr. Cooley's plan, meanwhile, have derided the idea of shifting funds from wealthier to poorer districts as "socialism." Local school officials also have questioned whether site-based management would work.

The biggest concern, however, may be that bigger is not necessarily better. The county prides itself on small, local government. Its map is a patchwork quilt of more than 130 municipalities, and its 43 school districts are more than double the number in any other county in the state.

The response to a merger has been particularly cool in districts working on school reforms initiated by local residents. In Wilkinsburg, for example, the board is close to hiring a for-profit company--the Tennessee-based Alternative Public Schools Inc.--to run one of its three elementary schools, a deal that many fear would be impossible under a countywide system, said Jeremy Resnick, a consultant to the Wilkinsburg board.

"The bigger the school system," said Mr. Resnick, a former Pittsburgh teacher, "the more professionals are in charge and the less the people are in charge."

In this climate, the state legislation needed to enact Mr. Cooley's plan seems unlikely.

But a school-finance suit scheduled to be heard this spring could change things, particularly if the court orders legislative remedies for the state's educational inequities.

A bill to merge the state's 501 school districts into countywide systems did not clear the legislature last year but is expected to be introduced again soon.

In the meantime, the merger talk has prodded school officials in Allegheny County to explore resource-sharing arrangements.

"Sometimes it takes the threat of something you don't want to move you to try different things," said Richard N. Rose, the president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

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