Many states are offering financial incentives to communities that decide to consolidate school districts to help them with transition costs associated with mergers. But despite state incentives communities still favor local schools, and resistance to school consolidation across the country, including Maine, is very strong, according to Maggie Clark of Pew States.
Public sentiment reveals that people believe that school consolidation leads to upheaval in the community. In 2007, Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed legislation ordering the state’s 290 school districts to consolidate into just 80 districts or face penalties. Maine lost 58 school districts between 2007 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census.
Maine typifies a decades-long national trend. The number of independent school districts nationwide shrank nearly 90% between 1942 and 2012—from 108,579 school districts to 12,880. There were 383 fewer total school districts in 2012 than in 2007, according to the Census.
“It was a shotgun marriage,” said Doug Smith, superintendent of the Glenburn school district. The district consolidated budgets with two others in 2010, and the unified district was responsible for 1,400 students and five schools. “We were forced to do it or incur penalties, and there were no incentives,” Smith said.
For states, consolidating school districts can mean fewer buildings to maintain and lower administrative costs. However, for communities, consolidation can mean longer bus rides for students, losing budgetary control and even a loss of community history.
“The two things a community never wants to lose are its post office and school district,” said Bob McKeveny, the superintendent of the Seneca Falls school district near the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Voters there narrowly rejected a consolidation with neighboring Waterloo just two weeks ago.
In recent years, Maine has been the only state that has forced school district consolidation. However, reducing the number of school districts is a top priority for some governors looking to streamline education reform and cut costs.
“If (the local budget situation) was really, really tough, you’d see (consolidation) happen,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in March. “If you are a school district, or a city, or a town or a county, and you are looking for a fundamental financial reform, consolidation is one of the obvious ones.”
New York is offering school districts choosing to consolidate a 40% increase in their state aid in addition to money for new buildings.
“The actual savings from these plans is usually just a fraction of the property tax bill, so it’s difficult to vote for doing a radical and risky thing for something that often amounts to $20 or $30 in savings,” said Kent Gardner, chief economist at the Center For Governmental Research in Rochester, New York.
Kansas offers consolidating districts the full amount of both individual districts’ state aid for five years after a merger.
“When you consolidate districts, the buildings are in the wrong place, the teachers are in the wrong place and parents are mad about where their kids are going to school,” said David Thompson, a professor at Kansas State University who specializes in school finance research.