Archive for Monday, October 4, 2004

School mergers painful subject

Funding issues may force more consolidations

October 4, 2004


— The prospect of consolidating school districts is so politically unpopular in the Kansas Legislature that lawmakers often refuse to even say the word aloud, referring to the concept as "the C-word."

But officials who have merged sparsely populated school districts or schools within a district say it can work, though it is a difficult job.

"There have been a lot of adjustments for a lot of people," said Mark Wolters, superintendent of the school district that was formed by combining the Atwood and Herndon districts in far northwestern Kansas.

The consolidation "was not a situation anybody wanted to have happen," he said, but because of decreasing population in the area, there was general agreement "the time had come."

So at the start of this school year, Herndon no longer had a high school and its students started attending high school in Atwood.

"The kids have gotten along terrifically," Wolters said.

Such moves are few and far between because loyalties to schools are strong, especially in rural communities where the school often is the center of social activity.

District consolidation and school closures are being driven by demographics and finances. In the future, they may be initiated by court decisions on school funding.

Kansas' population now is the smallest percentage of the United States population since the 1870s. Fifty-four of Kansas' 105 counties have fewer people now than they did in the early 1900s.

The downward trend, especially in rural western Kansas, means two-thirds of Kansas' 301 school districts have experienced enrollment declines in the past year.

Meanwhile, a state district court has declared Kansas' $2.7 billion school finance system unconstitutional. The ruling, in part, says small, rural school districts are getting a disproportionate share of funding at the expense of larger districts that have higher concentrations of minority students and students with disabilities. The case is under consideration by the Kansas Supreme Court.

Students' best interests

In Herndon, officials came to the conclusion they couldn't justify continuing a junior high and high school that had just 35 students.

Jim Edwards, governmental relations specialist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said school board members in Atwood and Herndon and two other districts that recently merged -- Bazine and Ransom in western Kansas -- decided consolidation was in the students' best interest.

"It wasn't someone from the outside telling them," he said. "It's a process of discussion and a change in how those districts saw themselves."

The process also is evident in school districts that decide to shut down school buildings, in a sense consolidating within.

In the Waconda school district, which covers Mitchell, Osborne and part of Smith counties, the district shut down one of its two high schools.

Supt. Clark Coco said the closure and other realignments caused some hurt feelings, but that overall it had been a success.

"Academically, for the kids, it was a great deal," Coco said. With a larger high school, the school is able to offer a broader curriculum, he said.

But lawmakers fear the political ramifications of consolidation because many have argued that shutting down a school is tantamount to burying a community.

"When you get into this arena, it gets personal," said Dale Dennis, deputy state education commissioner.

Unifying school districts

Grudges remain today from a significant round of consolidations in the 1960s. In 1963, there were 1,840 school districts, including 330 that had only one teacher and a school board each, according to the state Education Department.

By 1967, the number of districts had been reduced to 339 through a politically bloody process.

"A lot of people didn't speak to each other," Dennis said.

Lawmakers today don't want a repeat of the 1960s but have adopted incentives for consolidation, Edwards said.

One incentive allows the combined districts to continue receiving the same amount of state funding for both districts for three years, even though their student populations are declining.

The bottom line, Edwards said, is that lawmakers won't take the lead in consolidating school districts but are willing to help if the districts decide to do it.

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