Nebraska District-Merger Bill Generates Controversy
Nebraska lawmakers are considering a bill that could force about half the state’s nearly 500 districts to merge with larger ones, closing many small schools along the way.
Sen. Ron Raikes, who chairs the education committee in the nonpartisan and unicameral state legislature, argues that the measure would solve economic and administrative problems.
More than 200 tiny schools end up spending a greater share of state money to educate their students, he contends, because such schools lack the economy of scale. In addition, teachers’ salaries and testing standards vary dramatically across the state’s smallest school systems, known in Nebraska as "Class 1" districts.
"The Class 1 proposal makes sense to me on the grounds of cost savings, quality of education, and better governance," said Mr. Raikes.
Opponents say the bill, which passed the education committee last month and could see a final vote in the legislature this week, would punish more successful small schools for the troubles of a few. One district is suspected of taking state money without serving any students.
"It will forever change the landscape of school districts in Nebraska," said Stephen A. Swidler, whose son attends one of the targeted schools, and an education professor at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.
"We keep asking, where’s the educational value in all of this?" Mr. Swidler said.
Smart or Detrimental?
About 241 of the state’s 500 school districts fall into the Class 1 category, which means they serve grades K-8 only. Those districts must be affiliated with nearby K-12 systems where students can attend high school, or with high school-only districts.
Class 1 districts serve about 8,600, or 3 percent, of Nebraska’s 280,000 public school students. The small districts are governed by three-member school boards that are elected by caucus—small gatherings of parents and community residents. One estimate says 141 of the Class 1 districts have fewer than 15 students.
Sen. Raikes’ bill would eliminate those school boards and place the Class 1 districts and their elementary schools under the control of the nearby K-12 districts. The K-12 districts already depend in part on the Class 1 districts’ test scores to meet accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, but have few oversight powers, even though the Class 1 students attend their high schools.
The legislation, which Sen. Raikes says could save school districts some $4 million, has the support of many education policy groups in Nebraska. But critics say the effect of forced school closings on tiny communities cannot be overestimated.
Sen. Vickie McDonald, who serves on the education committee and voted against Mr. Raikes’ bill, said the state has no business forcing schools to close or merge with one another. She wants an in- depth study on the effect of the legislation before lawmakers vote it up or down. Such a study could delay the measure another year.
Ms. McDonald, who lives in Rockville, about 180 miles west of Omaha, said she attended a Class 1 school through the 3rd grade. Her school then merged with a neighboring town’s, and the aftermath of that state-forced closing decades ago still lingers in her legislative district, which covers 5,000 square miles—an area the size of Connecticut.
"I remember ... there were death threats," Sen. McDonald said. "There were people who never spoke to one another again, all because of forced consolidation."
Dozens of communities in recent years have agreed to merge schools on their own, and should be left to make those painful decisions locally, she added.
Lobbyists in Lincoln report that Sen. Raikes’ bill has enough support to pass, but time is a factor. Lawmakers were scheduled to finish their session this week, and still had to approve a budget, leaving little time to act on the merger plan.
"I will be surprised if this thing passes this year, but because of that, it’s not going away," Sen. McDonald said.
As a compromise with some supporters of small schools, Sen. Raikes, who represents part of the state capital of Lincoln and a nearby rural area, said he agreed to an amendment. It would restrict the closing of elementary schools in Class 1 districts if the schools averaged at least two students from the local area in each grade.
The amendment also would keep open any schools in incorporated towns and require a three-fourths majority vote of the controlling K-12 school board before a school could be closed.
But Mr. Swidley argues that most of the K-12 boards would act quickly to close the smaller schools—including his child’s school in Oak Valley, outside Lincoln. He said the school offers great teachers and a caring environment, all for less-than-average costs per student.
"These districts would be gone forever," Mr. Swidler said. "It would happen immediately."
A Better Way
Matt Blomstedt, the executive director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, in Lincoln, said his group opposes forced consolidation of any kind.
Nebraska, he said, needs a better way to deal with declining enrollment in all sorts of rural communities, from tiny crossroads served by Class 1 districts to larger rural schools.
"We end up needing to have a conversation about how we provide education for a lot of these places," Mr. Blomstedt said.
Vol. 23, Issue 31, Pages 28,30