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Buffi Sawyer never wanted to spend her senior year at 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 Buffi dreaded the move at first, it hasn't turned out so bad. At North Cedar, she plays 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 says. "This is the best year I've ever had."

Buffi 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," says John Hlubek, principal of North Cedar, which is 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.

Some experts, particularly those touting the advantages of small, locally controlled schools, question whether the trend is positive. "In America, there is the general notion that if it's bigger, it's better," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The push toward school district consolidation, he suggests, "has not been based on thoughtful research on how children blossom."

A small community's personality and identity are often closely linked to its schools. As a result, a merger or forced consolidation can end up disrupting a way of life--especially in rural areas. "Every time you build a school in the middle of nowhere, you lose identity and community relations," says Paul Nachtigal, national director of the Annenberg Rural Challenge, a $50 million Colorado-based program that encourages rural school reform. "I think that's a very high cost."

Iowa's wave of mergers began in the 1980s when the state started 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," says Guy Ghan, a district organization consultant for the Iowa education department. 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 both communities in the new district wanted. A compromise was reached by locating the middle school in Clarence, a farming town of about 1,000 people, and the high school in Stanwood, which has about 800 people. Each town wound up with an elementary school.

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

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

By reorganizing, Ghan says, school districts can trim their bureaucracies and improve their chances of increasing local tax revenue, especially for upgrading old buildings.

But not all Iowa communities are buying the idea. Take the tiny Lincoln Central school district in northeastern Iowa. The district sends all of its 200 students to the neighboring Estherville and Armstrong-Ringsted districts, but it has opted not to merge 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 forged after efforts to negotiate a merger with the nearby districts failed.

The compromise arrangement works well, according to Cathy Beaver, president of the Lincoln Central school board. "It seems like when we go to meetings and talk to other board members, they have problems"--discipline complaints and bond elections, to name two--"that we don't have," she says. "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," says M.L. Smith, superintendent of the 93-student Odell public schools in Nebraska. Smith made the 63-mile trip to Lincoln recently to urge Nebraska lawmakers to kill a cost-cutting bill that would force many small districts to merge along county lines.

But like many similar districts, the costs of staying alive are substantial, and they fall on the local citizenry. In Odell's case, that means approving an $800,000 school-renovation and construction bond. "If they don't support the bond," Smith says, "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?' "

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 took the money but then refused to merge. "The bottom line is that voluntary redistricting appears to be an oxymoron," says Tom Decker, director of school district organization for the state. Legislation is now being drafted that would pay for the construction of new schools in communities--but only after voters approve a merger.

Many districts hoping to stave off merger or consolidation are turning to regional education centers that have been created to provide cost-effective services and products that communities wouldn't be able to afford on their own. These one-stop shopping centers offer everything from classroom equipment to teacher training to school psychologists. Some are private operations, others are government-run. Iowa's 15 education centers are run by the state education department.

"If it were not for the centers," Ghan says, "more districts would have reorganized."

--Robert C. Johnston

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