Rural school districts facing threat of consolidation

Consolidation increasingly is becoming an attractive alternative to states faced with growing pressure to fund public education, with small, rural school districts being affected the most. The question, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, is whether policymakers take the best interest of students into account.

“It’s a case-by-case situation,” says Marty Strange, the organization’s policy director. “Where we balk is when there is a systemic, forced, and somewhat arbitrary consolidation of school districts. We think there are a lot of worthy considerations not given their due in the process.”

Over the past 70 years, the number of school districts has declined from 117,000 to around 14,200, even though the student population has almost doubled. Ten states, led by Maine, are considering consolidation or moving toward the process this year.

Strange said during a late October webinar that consolidation “crosses hairs with all of the classic debates -- equity, adequacy, efficiency, and the question of who is in control.”

“As the evidence grows daily that small schools are quite effective, this is an issue that is being turned on its head,” he said. “It’s gone from ‘How big does a school or district have to be to be efficient?’ to ‘How small do schools have to be to be effective?’ … For the most part, these issues are not matters of a right way and a wrong way. They are questions of value and questions in many respects that trouble the mind.”

Historically, consolidation has been a rural issue, but urban systems are seeing declining enrollment as well, which often results in the merger of two or more schools. Whether it occurs at the school or district level, Strange says the same issues -- loss of community in the pursuit of efficiency -- are the same.

States often look to consolidation when they face long-term declining enrollment and rising per-pupil costs. Legislators are likely to consider the process as a way to address funding inequities.

“This issue gets intense in states where there is a divergence of fortune, where you have prosperous urban areas and rural areas that are in great distress,” Strange says.

An example, he notes, is in Nebraska, where urban populations in and around Omaha and Great Forks are thriving and growing rapidly. Meanwhile, rural areas that have relied heavily on the agricultural economy are suffering, and Strange says the “feeling is that the rural areas are holding the urban areas back.”

Ultimately, Strange believes that as many as 25 states will take consolidation plans into consideration. And rural districts, he says, are in the most danger of losing their autonomy and identity.

“In 1920, we were still close to being a rural majority nation. Today, we’re definitely a rural minority nation,” he says. “As we’ve become an urban nation, we’ve stopped talking about the quality of rural schools and started talking about the cost of keeping them open.”


Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

For more information on school consolidation, visit www.asbj.com and click on “The Long Road to Unity” button. Copies of the Rural School and Community Trust webinar can be downloaded at www.nsba.org/natwinrivers.