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District Mergers Continuing To Redraw Educational Maps

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Buffi Sawyer never wanted to spend her senior year at the new North Cedar High School. She had planned to graduate from Clarence Junior-Senior High School, where students from her central Iowa hometown had always gone.

But the school district in Clarence merged last fall with its rival six miles away. Her old school is now a middle school.

Though Ms. Sawyer dreaded the move at first, it hasn't turned out so bad. At North Cedar, she played on the state's fourth-ranked girls' basketball team, enjoys bigger lockers, takes a wider variety of courses, and eats lunches a la carte.

"I've totally changed my mind," she said recently of the switch to the new school. "This is the best year I've ever had."

Ms. Sawyer is one of thousands of Iowa students caught up in a decade of school reorganization that has substantially altered the state's educational map, especially in rural areas. Since 1984, when Iowa had 438 school districts, 119 have merged to create 59 new districts.

State and local officials say that by pooling their resources and merging, the school systems were able to address the problems of declining enrollments, aging facilities, and demands for new student services.

"People are leery of change," said John Hlubek, the principal at North Cedar High in Stanwood. "But if it makes good, common sense for education, then follow your heart."

The trend hasn't been limited to Iowa alone. Nationwide, the number of school districts shrank from 26,983 in 1965 to 14,881 in 1994. Reasons for the drop include state-mandated consolidations, voluntary mergers, and districts that have closed because of shrinking enrollments.

But not all experts believe the trend has been positive, especially when many education-reform efforts are promoting the advantages of smaller schools and more localized control over them.

"In America, there is the general notion that if it's bigger, it's better," said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. But the push toward school district consolidation, he added, "has not been based on thoughtful research on how children blossom."

A community's personality and sense of identity are often closely linked to its schools, moreover, and educators and residents in many rural areas fear that mergers can strip away those things.

"Every time you build a school in the middle of nowhere, you lose identity and community relations," said Paul Nachtigal, the national director of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a $50 million matching-grant program in Granby, Colo., that encourages rural school reform. "I think that's a very high cost."

Many districts are turning to regional education centers, or alternatives to wholesale mergers, as a way of preserving that sense of community while gaining some of the advantages of consolidation.

Courtship Period

Iowa's wave of mergers began in the 1980s when the state began offering cash bonuses to districts that shared superintendents and swapped whole grades of students. Designed to improve student services in rural areas, the bonuses were extended if districts voted to merge within five years.

"There was a period of courtship followed by marriage," said Guy W. Ghan, the Iowa education department's consultant on district organization.

Between 1984 and 1995, the number of districts with fewer than 500 students dropped from 186 to 78, and the total number of districts in the state fell from 438 to 354.

The North Cedar school system opened in Cedar County last fall with 990 students in grades K-12, bringing together the former districts of Clarence-Lowden and Lincoln.

A big sticking point en route to the merger was the question of where to put the high school, which just about everyone wanted. A compromise was reached by locating the middle school in Clarence, a farming community of about 1,000 people, and the high school in Stanwood, which has about 800 people, six miles away. Each town wound up with an elementary school.

Property-tax rates, often the bane of merger proposals when there is a risk they might increase, ended up just below the average for the two districts, which is typical, Mr. Ghan said.

Dick Bachman, the superintendent of the new district, said the merger strengthens education in the communities involved. "We never said we'd spend less money on education," he said, "but we said those dollars would be put to better use than before."

District Without Schools

Mr. Ghan said that by reorganizing, school districts can trim their bureaucracies and improve their ability to increase their local tax revenue, especially for upgrading old buildings.

But not all Iowa communities are sold on the notion.

The Lincoln Central school district in northeastern Iowa sends all of its 200 students to the neighboring Estherville or Armstrong-Ringsted district, but has not merged with either of them. In essence, the community has a school district and a school board, but no schools.

The arrangement, the only one of its kind in Iowa, was negotiated after separate efforts by local residents to merge with the nearby districts failed.

The compromise arrangement works well, said Cathy Beaver, the president of the Lincoln Central school board. "It seems like when we go to meetings and talk to other board members, they have problems that we don't have," such as discipline complaints and bond elections, she said. "We think, 'Boy are we lucky."'

Residents of towns elsewhere share the distaste for folding their local school districts into others.

"We polled our citizens and they said it's a dumb idea," said M.L. Smith, the superintendent of 93-student Odell public schools in Nebraska.

Mr. Smith drove to Lincoln recently to meet with Nebraska lawmakers and urge them to kill a cost-cutting bill that would force many small districts to realign along county lines.

But like many of his beleaguered colleagues, he needs local support. In his case, that means passage of an $800,000 school-renovation and construction bond in Odell, which is 63 miles south of Lincoln.

"If they don't support the bond, the board and I must decide to spend $350,000 on old buildings, or go to the people and say, 'Let's close. Where do you want to go?"'

A High Cost

In North Dakota, where the population of many rural areas is shrinking fast, lawmakers last year killed a five-year, $10 million program that paid school districts to write reorganization plans. It was deemed a failure because communities rushed to take the money but refused to merge.

"The bottom line is that voluntary redistricting appears to be an oxymoron," said Tom Decker, the director of school district organization for the North Dakota education department.

Legislation is being drafted that would encourage mergers by paying for construction of new schools in the participating communities, but only after voters approve a merger, Mr. Decker said.

Mr. Nachtigal of the Annenberg Rural Challenge believes even that approach may not be such a great idea, because of the loss a merger brings to a community's identity and control over its schools. The projected savings are often lost to higher transportation costs and the addition of middle-level administrators hired to replace superintendents, he added.

Some experts predict that the slowing pace of consolidations in Iowa will likely be mirrored nationwide.

"I think that some consolidation will continue to go on, but in predominantly small districts," said Bruce Hunter, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators in Washington. "Now, the big trend is to break up big districts."

For example, several local coalitions are trying to break up the sprawling, 708-square mile Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest. And at least two states, Florida and New Hampshire, are considering legislation that would allow large districts to divide. (See Education Week, March 6, 1996.)

New Directions

One resource helping small districts remain viable without losing their identity is the growing network of regional education-service agencies, Mr. Hunter said.

These one-stop shopping centers for equipment, school psychologists, teacher training, and other services can be private or government-run. Many are governed by appointed boards and, for most, the main customers are local superintendents.

Iowa's 15 regional education centers are run by the state education department. "If it were not for the centers," Mr. Ghan said, "more districts would have reorganized."

Some states and counties have found another alternative to mergers that still saves on administrative costs: joining only the business functions of districts.

Gov. Angus S. King Jr. of Maine is exploring that option by proposing to spend $100,000 on two pilot projects that would test the concept. The idea is before the state legislature.

"We know there are efforts going all over the country to consolidate the business side to make more money for the instructional side," said Raymond H. Poulin, the deputy commissioner of education in Maine. "We want to see if it really works."

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