School & District Management

W. Va. Eyes Softer Stand On School Mergers

By Alan Richard — February 04, 2004 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management The Already Dire Substitute Shortage Could Get 'Worse Before It Gets Better'
School districts are trying all sorts of tactics, including increasing pay and relaxing requirements, to get more subs in classrooms.
10 min read
Image of an empty classroom.
urfinguss/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion National School Boards Association Chooses to Be Part of the Problem
The NSBA chose to blur the distinction between permissible and suspect speech in suggesting the FBI should target unruly protesters.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School & District Management Facing Disruption and Firings, L.A. Extends COVID Vaccine Deadline for School Staff
The extension comes as the nation's second-largest school system has struggled to fill more than 2,000 teaching and other vacancies.
Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
5 min read
In this March 2, 2021, file photo, a sign is displayed at a COVID-19 vaccination site for employees of the Los Angeles School District, LAUSD, in the parking lot of SOFI Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. Public schools have struggled for years with teacher shortages, particularly in math, science, special education and languages. But the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. The stresses of teaching in the COVID-era caused a spike in teacher retirements and resignations. On top of that, schools now have to hire all kinds of additional staff, like tutors and special aides to help kids make up for learning losses, and more teachers to run online school for those not ready to return.
In this March 2, 2021, file photo, a sign is displayed at a COVID-19 vaccination site for employees of the Los Angeles School District, LAUSD, in the parking lot of SOFI Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo
School & District Management Opinion Graduation Must Depend on Learning, Not Time
We’re long overdue to redesign our education system around competency, argue six superintendents. Here’s what that could look like.
Morcease Beasley, Alberto Carvalho, William Hite, Jesus Jara, Monica Goldson & Jerry Almendarez
5 min read
A conceptual illustration of a mountain of paperwork before the goal is reached.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and iStock