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Senators look at school consolidation

School district consolidation isn’t a new idea in Pennsylvania, but it has been one that struggles to gain any widespread traction.

A group of state senators have pledged to take a bipartisan look at the pros and cons of shrinking the total number of school districts, currently 500, in the state.

The Senate Majority Policy Committee and the Senate Democrat Policy Committee hosted a public workshop in Harrisburg on Monday.

“Having this discussion doesn’t mean that school consolidation is happening,” said state Sen. Lisa Boscola, a Democrat who represents Lehigh and Northampton counties and chairs the Democratic committee.

“It’s an emotional issue, but with property taxes continuing to skyrocket, it’s important to make every effort to streamline costs where we can.”

Pennsylvania has undergone several major waves of school district consolidation. In the 1960s, 2,277 public districts dwindled to 668. A decade later, another round of consolidation dropped the number of districts to 505.

Lawmakers authorized a study in 2016 by the Joint State Government Commission on the pros and cons of consolidating school districts.

“The devil is in the details,” said Dr. Helen Khanzhina, project manager.

“It appears to be obvious that you would save in certain areas with consolidation, but we found that wasn’t always the case.

“You may cut it down to one chief administrator, but you find out you need several administrators at middle levels and sometimes the expenses are greater than what you started with.”

Transportation and teacher contracts would have to be worked out.

“Consolidation could expand access to curriculum that students in a poorer district wouldn’t normally have, but you have to step carefully with this.”

John Callahan, Pennsylvania School Boards Association chief advocacy officer, said since the major consolidation of the 1960s, any mergers since have been locally driven.

The last one, in 2009-2010, created the Central Valley School District, formed out of the combination of the Center Area School District and the Monaca School District, both in Beaver County.

It is one of the few success stories, however, and on Monday, state Sen. Judy Schwank, who represents Reading and eastern Berks County, described the fallout of merger talks between Exeter and Antietam school districts. In that case, Exeter board members said the move didn’t make sense from an economic standpoint.

“There were a lot of issues and they weren’t just fiscal, they were also cultural,” Schwank said. “However, I do think one of the things the state needs to look at is if there is any assistance we can offer to help smooth out those upfront costs. A lot of people in Exeter said, I don’t want my taxes to go up to help out another district.”

Though the Exeter-Antietam merger didn’t come to be, the two districts did pledge to work together in an effort to share resources. Khanzhina said a portion of the Joint State Government Commission’s report deals with alternative options, rather than a full-fledged district consolidation.

“Transportation is a large cost and districts can pair together on that,” she said. “Food services is another area where shared services could be a good idea. We have also seen districts merge teams like swimming or lacrosse. The opportunities are out there and that can be very effective.”

In 2009, then-Gov. Ed Rendell proposed trimming the number of school districts from 500 to 100, but the push soon fizzled. During the Joint State Government Commission’s study, Khanzhina said, it looked at what other states were discussing.

“Maine was a really interesting case,” she said. “They made it mandatory, to a degree, that districts which refused to consolidate would be fined. Shockingly, quite a few preferred to pay fines rather than consolidate with neighbor. They did succeed, however, in getting rid of a lot of districts.”

State Sen. Dave Argall said he frequently hears from constituents about taking a look at consolidation and whether it makes sense. While not in Argall’s district, Jim Thorpe Area School District director Gerald Strubinger Sr. has been one of those voices on the local level. Strubinger has attended school board meetings outside of Jim Thorpe to try to encourage districts to consider consolidation.

“There is so much duplication of effort,” Strubinger said, “I really think we can save some serious money. In Carbon County you have five superintendents, five business managers, five attorneys, five of everybody doing the same thing. We all have the same policies and same contracts. It’s crazy.”

Schwank said she’s in favor of continuing the discussion of consolidation, though not necessarily setting an end number of districts the state would like to see.

“The public is continually looking to cut or eliminate property taxes,” she said. “This may not be that specific opportunity, but may get us to a place where we get a common sense understanding of what it costs to educate a student in this commonwealth. I don’t think we should wait until a district is ready to tank to get involved. The state definitely has a role to play here.”