School district mergers tough pill to swallow

When House GOP leaders last week put school district consolidation on their list of things to consider to alleviate budget problems, you could almost hear alarms going off across the state.

In rural parts of Kansas, losing a school district signals the death of a community. Many people identify strongly with the school district they attended, and the prospect of legislators in Topeka mandating consolidation with another district would not sit well with them.

But Kansas has a lot of school districts — 293 — and most are experiencing declining enrollment. Sixty-five percent of school districts in 2008-2009 saw a decrease in enrollment from the previous year, according to a report done by the Kansas Association of School Boards. And that decline includes rural, urban and suburban districts.

There are neighboring school districts in the same county and in the same town and each one has its own administration, superintendent, bus system and food service. So, it’s no wonder consolidating school districts is often mentioned in the Capitol when talk turns to running the state more efficiently and saving some bucks.

Politically, however, it’s just not popular.

But districts do consolidate on their own, usually after several years of consideration, wrangling and debate at the local level.

During the past few years, two to four districts each year have consolidated, according to Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis.

He said it happens when the local community realizes that their students would be better served academically through consolidation. The Legislature has provided some budgetary incentives for consolidation to help the districts make the transition.

“In the past, they (the Legislature) have made the decision to leave it up to local communities and local boards, and to provide incentives but not mandate,” he said.

Will the current budget shortfall force a change? We’ll see.