Outlook 2010: States seeking savings may try to merge school systems

As economic hard times continue for many school systems, several states are pursuing, or at least considering, the politically thorny step of merging small districts. In many cases, people acknowledge as a general matter the potential benefits of consolidating districts; but when the merger arrow is aimed at their own systems, those same people aren't so supportive.

From coast to coast, school systems with tiny enrollments continue to operate. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2007-08, nearly 46 percent of the nation's 13,924 regular public elementary and secondary school districts (6,389) had student enrollments of less than 1,000. More than 4,000 districts enrolled fewer than 500 students. By contrast, only 871 districts had more than 10,000 students in 2007-08.

State policymakers and educators see merging districts as an opportunity to allocate funds more efficiently by saving on administrative and facility costs. Consolidated school systems may be able to offer students a wider range of course offerings.

But for the small communities that would lose their districts or separate school campuses in a consolidation, the issue transcends mere financial considerations — it often goes to the heart of a community's identity and its future viability.

Those conflicts inevitably make district consolidation efforts a bruising and time-consuming battle. Here are some examples:

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

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