Merging Together as One District

By Glenn Cook

In small towns across America, high school athletics are a hub of social and community activities. This is especially true in football-rich Western Pennsylvania, called the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” because of the number of NFL stars who come from the region.  

So it was a big deal when the 2,400-student Central Valley School District won the AAA Championship of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League in 2010. A very big deal, considering the team was in its first season and was the product of the first voluntary district merger in the state’s history.

“Everyone rallied around it,” says Dan Matsook, the first superintendent of the merged district. “The school spirit was on fire.”

The football team’s success was a victory in more ways than one for Central Valley, located about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It represented the success of a years-long effort to merge two districts -- Center and Monaca -- in adjoining towns only two miles apart. Both were suffering from declining enrollment, aging facilities, and fewer advanced class offerings for students. 

Today, the district has embarked on a one-to-one iPad initiative for students, a project led by then-Assistant Superintendent Nicholas Perry, who now heads the district following Matsook’s June 30 retirement. It also is offering 10 Advanced Placement courses, up from two offered in Center before the merger. Two older schools in Monaca have been sold, and the town’s high school has been converted into a middle school serving all of Central Valley’s sixth- to eighth-grade students.

“We’ve done a lot of great things in forming this district, but it was still difficult,” says Tom Mowad, who joined the board in 2008 and is now its president. “You’re giving up your school mascot and team colors, and there are changes in the buildings. Matters of the heart are difficult to overcome, but we’ve made it work.”

A voluntary merger

What makes Central Valley’s story compelling to other school districts, especially small ones that are facing tremendous financial challenges, is that the district’s merger was voluntary. In all but a handful of cases, consolidation is forced on communities, often by state legislatures eager to save money on school spending.

This was especially true during the Baby Boom from 1946 to 1964, when states started seeking efficiencies as the number of students grew exponentially each year. Before World War II ended, the U.S. had 117,000 school districts and 25.5 million students. Today, that number is fewer than 14,000 districts and up to 50 million students.

In Pennsylvania, the number of school districts declined from 2,277 to 669 in the 1960s, then down to 501 by 1981. Many of those left are small -- with fewer than 1,000 students -- and officials have been concerned that the state could consider consolidation legislation similar to that passed in Arkansas, Maine, and West Virginia over the past decade.

Todd Hosterman, senior research associate for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), believes a case can be made for small districts to consider voluntary mergers, especially in areas where “you can drive from a high school to another and go through four districts in 20 minutes.” But PSBA -- and NSBA, for that matter -- are strongly against forced consolidation, believing that communities should be able to determine their own fates.

“In general, schools are turning toward smaller learning environments,” Hosterman says. “But from the perspective where you have declining enrollment, especially in the western part of the state, and where pension costs are driving schools out of business, they’re going to have to start considering options just to be able to survive.”

A merger had been discussed in Center and Monaca twice before, and two feasibility studies -- one in the early 1970s and another in the early 1990s -- were conducted by the districts -- with no changes made. By 2006, however, the districts were faced with declining enrollment and aging facilities. The time seemed right to bring up a possible merger again.

Matsook, who was the superintendent in Center throughout the consolidation process, says the talks were prompted -- at least initially -- by the need for a new school building. In Pennsylvania, districts that are considering new construction must complete state-mandated enrollment studies to determine whether the facility will adequately -- and cost-effectively -- serve the student body.

“The thinking at that time was, given our location in Beaver County, where our enrollment is declining, that we had to really look at what we needed 30 years down the road,” Matsook says. “My suggestion was, why don’t we meet with the Monaca representatives and see if they wanted to do another feasibility study on merger? That way, we could put the issue to rest or do something about it.”

Difficult but doable

The study came back, showing conditions were favorable for a merger. The boards moved ahead with the plans, but the 2008 election proved to be a temporary setback when several anti-merger advocates were elected.

“Once they got on the board, it took time to educate everybody again about what we were trying to do,” says Dennis Bloom, who was serving as a Monaca trustee and remains on the Central Valley board. “It was a learning curve all over again.”

Mowad, who supported the merger, says a big issue was over a mercantile tax, which generated $300,000 annually for Center but was not levied in Monaca. A much-debated compromise left the tax in place, but Monaca businesses do not have to pay the tax on the first $200,000 of revenue they generate.

“It was a lot of things like that,” Mowad says, noting that Monaca did not provide transportation for its students but came into the merger debt-free. “We had to work through it, and we had to work through the emotion that everyone felt. You could not get two more similar demographic areas, and it was still difficult.”

Difficult, yes, but doable. The financial stability of both districts helped, as does their proximity to each other. The board worked through its issues, agreeing to sell two Monaca buildings and create a stand-alone middle school. With more students in the high school, the district now offers more AP courses and is moving to a one-to-one iPad initiative in 2013-14.

“We could not offer AP courses in Monaca, and that was difficult,” says Bloom, a school board member for 13 years. “The kids who were your achievers got their education in Monaca and were able to function in college, but they didn’t have the advantage that an improved curriculum has to offer. And that’s the big thing for me, to be sure we can offer our students the best classes possible.”

Athletics united the community

The school board that made the merger happen had 18 members -- nine each from Central and Monaca. Members agreed to phase in the new district over two years -- elementary schools in 2009-10 and grades 6-12 in 2010-11.
 
“It was tough, but even when we had an 18-member board, we could always come to consensus and move forward professionally,” Mowad says. “Whether you agreed with it or not, it was the consensus of the board. Let’s move onto the next subject and go on from there.”

Mowad says districts considering a voluntary merger must focus on students first and not on the potential cost-savings they will achieve.

“For anyone going into this down the road, whatever you think the savings are going to be, they’re not going to be as great,” he says. “There were ways we could have saved more money, but they would have cut into opportunities for students. As a board, we chose to do what was right for the students.”

The smartest move, Bloom, Matsook, and Mowad agree, was giving students the opportunity to name the district and mascot and choose the high school’s colors. “We told them, ‘The name of that district is going to be on your diploma, and that’s what you’ll be taking with you,’ and the students took hold of it,” Bloom says.

That school spirit carried over into athletics, which brought the communities together when the football team won the AAA championship.

“We still have our issues, and there are some people who still grumble about things, but athletics have united everybody,” Bloom says. “They brought our communities together, and all of the negativism out there kind of mellowed away when they saw the kids working so hard together for a common goal. And we’ve moved forward ever since.”

Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com), the former publisher and executive editor of ASBJ, is now a freelance writer, editor, and photographer.