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Published in Print: February 4, 2004, as W. Va. Eyes Softer Stand On School Mergers

W. Va. Eyes Softer Stand On School Mergers

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After years of fighting for rural schools and shorter bus rides, Linda Martin couldn't believe what she was seeing: The governor of West Virginia was championing her cause on TV.

Gov. Bob Wise urged the legislature during his State of the State Address Jan. 14 to change laws that allow two-hour bus rides for some students and have forced more than 200 schools to merge with others in West Virginia over the past decade.

The remarks were some of his strongest against school consolidation in his three years as governor.

"We were very proud of him," said Ms. Martin, the executive director of Challenge West Virginia, which lobbies in Charleston, the state capital, for the survival of small rural schools.

While advocates for smaller schools aren't sure where Gov. Wise's proposed legislation will lead, the potential change of direction reflects some new developments in the national battle to preserve small schools and the communities they serve.

Research suggesting that many students learn better in small schools is creeping into education policy debates in West Virginia, Louisiana, and other states. Louisiana recently looked at consolidation as a way to improve struggling schools—before state officials found that research into school mergers argued against such a move.

But the reality of declining enrollments and tight state budgets still makes it nearly impossible for some schools and districts in the Great Plains states to survive.

"I'm not raising the victory flag up," said Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington. And while he believes "there is a change in attitude about the value of small schools," he cautions that plenty of political hurdles remain before states decide to preserve or create more modest-size campuses, particularly in rural areas.

Mountain State Battles

Gov. Wise's recent speech in West Virginia was a big moment for boosters of small schools and rural communities, but Ms. Martin said her group's work isn't done yet. "We haven't won the battle, because in order for that to happen, we need to have a bill passed," she said.

The governor has spoken publicly in recent weeks about his own rocky experiences attending a large high school and his belief that West Virginia has devastated some rural communities by closing small schools and building new, consolidated campuses.

"He would like for state agencies, state policymakers, and county boards of education to look at consolidation as a last resort instead of as a first resort," said Jay Cole, the deputy secretary of education and the arts in West Virginia.

With few businesses to tax for school costs, most counties depend largely on the state for funding.

When schools need renovations, counties must apply to the state School Building Authority. Educators and activists say the authority refuses to approve construction money except when schools consolidate—a stance that forces counties to merge schools against the people's will, resulting in lawsuits and protests in some counties. ("School Merger Foes Rallying in West Virginia," April 10, 2002.)

Gov. Wise is putting his weight behind a bill that calls for more careful enforcement of state rules that require other factors besides up-front costs to be considered when the state approves money for school construction.

Mr. Wise's bus-ride bill would prohibit any new routes that would keep elementary students on school buses for longer than 30 minutes, middle school students for 45 minutes, and high school students for 60 minutes.

"You and I both know that no elementary student should ride a bus more than 30 minutes one way to school," Gov. Wise said in his speech last month.

Ms. Martin said that many West Virginia lawmakers support capping bus- ride times, but that a handful of powerful legislators are against the proposal because it would affect plans to merge dozens of elementary schools across the state.

"We have the majority," she declared. If well-placed members of the legislature will let some of the governor's proposals through their committees, "we can stop harming our children," she said.

Mr. Cole conceded that the bus-ride bill might not pass this year, but he said attention to the issue would have an impact on county-level decisions and the School Building Authority whether it passes or not.

Gov. Wise may be hindered because he's not running for re-election to a second term next fall.

School consolidation and bus rides have become an issue between the two leading Democratic candidates to succeed him—either of whom could be the favorite in the heavily Democratic state.

Changing Landscape

Craig B. Howley, one of the country's best known researchers on small schools, said he's seeing a shift in how politicians and the public view smaller schools. He contends that more research is needed, though, to understand why smaller schools seem to work better, especially for students from poor families.

"There has been a sea change in opinion in American education about school size over the last 20 years," said Mr. Howley, who teaches at Ohio University in Athens. "The thing that frightens me is that sea change in views about smaller school size is still based on fairly thin literature."

Louisiana's state board of education commissioned a report last year on whether research showed that school or district consolidation might be a tool to help some of the state's worst schools improve.

The board found out research didn't support a link between larger schools and improved student achievement, snuffing out any talk of mergers.

Bobby J. Franklin, who directs planning at the Louisiana Department of Education, said the report cited research he's seen over the years touting the value of small schools and the dangers of school and district consolidation."Financially it may work, but educationally, it typically causes some other problems," he said.

School consolidation also is a major issue in Arkansas. After the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2002 ordered the state to spend significantly more money on schools— especially poor and rural schools—lawmakers passed a plan that could force dozens of small school districts to merge. ("As Arkansas Legislature Stalls, Court Takes Action," this issue.)

The issue also is getting attention in states where declining rural enrollments contribute to pressure to consolidate.

South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds recently tried to soften his tone on school mergers. In his State of the State speech on Jan. 14, the Republican said he would be blunt about the need for some district reorganizations, or mergers. But he promised to be "personally involved" to make sure districts had the resources to solve the funding woes contributing to the trend.

To help out, Gov. Rounds has proposed what aides describe as one of the largest budget increases for education in South Dakota history. If approved by the legislature, the plan would add $23.4 million to the state's $321 million K-12 education budget. It also might preserve some schools and districts that might otherwise merge or go bankrupt.

Even the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, which has pushed for even higher funding, is being realistic about the state's situation.

"We appreciated what the governor had to say, because he's smart enough to have recognized that the best reorganization comes from the local level," said Hank Kosters, the assistant executive director for the school boards' association. Nine South Dakota school districts have merged with others in the past three years, and more than 60 have merged with others since the early 1970s, Mr. Kosters said. "It's my judgment that [mergers] will continue," he added.

Vol. 23, Issue 21, Pages 16,20

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