Merge Ahead

By Bruce Buchanan

Earl Row can't understand why the Arkansas school district he's devoted nearly three decades to will no longer exist in a few weeks.

It's not because of poor academics. The tiny Kingston School District, with 215 students, had the highest eighth-grade math scores in the entire state last year. But Kingston, like 56 other small, rural districts in Arkansas, will disappear in 2004-05, forced by the state to consolidate with neighboring districts.

In Arkansas, school consolidation is taking place at the district level. Other states, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, are closing small, rural schools and sending their former students to larger schools farther away from home. Supporters say consolidation is needed to make the best use of taxpayer dollars and provide the rich, varied curriculum expected from a modern school.

Regardless of the circumstances, most mergers take place despite strong opposition from rural residents, who say that small, tightly knit community schools are the best environments for children. In states such as Nebraska and Kansas, local citizens have managed to fend off consolidation efforts, while parents seceded from a rural Oregon district rather than lose their high school.

For Row, who is Kingston's superintendent, the intangibles far outweigh the tangibles in a consolidation debate.

"When you end districts, you end communities," he says. 

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