Small districts look to consolidation
Just hearing the words “school consolidation” scares some people.
Others point to it as a solution for struggling districts.
Consolidation, however, doesn’t always produce as much savings as expected, officials say.
As enrollment and funding drop in small school districts, officials are looking for creative ways to provide for students while managing taxpayer dollars.
Increasingly, they are looking at collaboration—a less radical, more widely accepted approach than consolidation.
Parkview and Brodhead both failed to approve referendums this spring to exceed revenue caps to pay the bills. Other districts in Green County have approved referendums in recent years, but they still struggle. Three districts even studied consolidation.
By working together, they hope to find ways to improve their districts without consolidating.
“The more we’re able to share, the more we’re able to save, instead of trying to absorb each other,” Albany Superintendent Steve Guenther said of his district’s developing cooperative with Juda and Monticello.
Guenther addressed an online comment on a Gazette story about Albany, which has about 420 students. The commenter said the district should have consolidated long ago.
“There’s just this general belief that it will be better,” said Guenther, who researched the value of small schools and the effects of consolidation for his Ph. D. dissertation.
Savings can be minimal, he said. His research shows that the small towns that have consolidated with larger schools have suffered because the school was such a big part of the community’s identity.
“If the best you’re going to do is save a little bit, it’s not worth it because you lose too much of the individual district being absorbed,” he said.
Albany’s geography also makes it impossible to efficiently consolidate. Instead, it would have to dissolve and send students to several districts, he said.
In the last 15 years in Wisconsin, pairs of districts consolidated five times, while one district split into two, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. From 1965 to 1995, DPI reports 20 cases of districts merging, one district dissolving and three districts splitting.
In the area, the small Green County districts of New Glarus, Monticello and Belleville studied consolidation, but they ended the discussion this spring.
Research and district studies across the state show the savings usually aren’t what people expect, and losing local identity is tough to overcome.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance completed consolidation studies for a couple districts and reviewed several more, said Dale Knapp, research director. He explained the three common discoveries:
-- Cost savings, or lack thereof: “Consolidation’s not necessarily a panacea,” Knapp said. “Generally, you can expect to probably find cost savings in the range of 5 to 7 percent.”
-- Major incentives: The state gives districts “a lot of money” to consolidate, he said. The state essentially bumps up the numbers in the state aid formula by about 15 percent for five years, he said, so districts receive a significant amount of additional money outside the revenue caps.
-- Hesitation among residents: “Even with all of the money the state is willing to throw at districts willing to consolidate, there’s still a significant amount of hesitation at the local level,” he said. “There’s a real sense of attachment to school districts, and people are not willing to easily get rid of their school district.”
“From what we found, even a lot of money doesn’t necessarily change a lot of people’s minds,” he said.
So what is the best-case scenario for consolidation?
Knapp said he doesn’t know of any recently.
“We haven’t seen any or many, really,” he said.
Recent consolidations have been two smaller K-8 districts in the southeast and two districts in the north that don’t even border each other, he said, so both are unique examples.
The best candidates, however, seem to be smaller districts that aren’t geographically large and have the facilities to accommodate the students without construction, he said.
At DPI, officials “don’t promote consolidation one way or the other,” said Liz Kane, assistant director of school management services.
“There’s a law that allows districts to do that. We just help guide them.”
Guenther and Albany have been working with Juda and Monticello in what they are calling an “academic co-op,” which could help retain more students who otherwise might leave through open enrollment.
His district already co-ops with other districts for sports, but this could involve sharing staff, classes and resources. In fall, the three districts will share a psychologist. Beyond that, the concept is being developed, but Guenther hopes they can create a model that could be repeated around the state.
Districts have been sharing services for years, the DPI’s Kane said, but economic conditions likely are pushing districts to come up with new ways. Districts don’t have to report such efforts to DPI, she said, so officials there couldn’t say whether there is more collaboration.
Parkview officials in Orfordville have talked with Brodhead about consolidating programs or positions, including recent talks regarding their show choirs, but “it just hasn’t worked out,” Parkview Superintendent Steve Lutzke said.
“We haven’t found a real fit that will work for both districts,” he said.
Parkview does, however, participate in the Stateline Career & Technical Education Academy. That consortium of seven districts partners with UW-Rock County and Blackhawk Technical College to provide vocational opportunities for students.
Parkview has approached Albany in recent years about co-oping their football programs, but Albany decided to stick with its co-op with Belleville, Lutzke said.
“We continue to look for options to share services,” he said. “I think over the next few years that we’ll escalate the amount of things that we are able to share.”
As staff members retire in coming years, districts will be able to plan ahead to possibly share positions, he said.
A big issue for Parkview in the next year will be the possible closing of one of its three elementary schools, he said.
“The third Friday count in September will give us the real strong data used to decide on what the status of our schools are,” he said.
The Internet increasingly is becoming an option for small schools to provide courses that are too expensive to be offered for only a few kids in the classroom.
At Parkview, for example, four advanced placement courses are available in the classroom, but AP courses in just about any subject can be taken online at school, Lutzke said. The district also is starting a new online program called OdysseyWare that will offer more classes beyond AP.