School district consolidation is an extremely sensitive and emotional issue. So even thinking about it tends to evoke highly charged responses. In fact, consolidation of any local institution tends to create turmoil and tumult. The changing fiscal realities however are forcing review of any number of what have been local institutions which were essentially taken for granted in the past — schools, churches, post offices, hospitals.
The country school I attended through seventh grade was 20 students strong and there were three boys in my class, including me. All but one of the 20 were either first or second cousins. It closed decades ago. Having graduated from a high school with fewer than 300 students and less than 70 in my graduating class, I have fond memories of the experience of knowing on a first name basis everybody in school. Though the school in Wisconsin still operates the enrollment continues to dwindle and will inevitably face the consolidation ax in due time.
Now a story in another newspaper reports that Star, a small community in Mills County, may lose its school system. Apparently, there are no longer enough students to accommodate state funding under the state’s funding formula. Community representatives have reportedly visited and entered into discussions with surrounding school districts in consideration of the pending merger. Mullin and Goldthwaite have both expressed interest and willingness to participate in the consolidation. One must surmise that there is no surprise here and that those participating in the discussions have simply postponed the inevitable as long as possible.
That Star’s enrollment has dwindled to the current levels and the resulting merger is pending almost certainly serves notice to districts with similar demographic trends that more mergers are almost certain in coming years—probably sooner than later.
The fond memories and emotions of small town school systems aside, the economies of scale are simply too compelling to overlook any longer. Duplicated costs of administration, transportation, programming and staffing are finally resulting in the dynamic that most everyone knew was coming but hoped they’d never live to see.
Taxing entities are no longer able, or in some cases legally permitted, to generate the revenues needed to operate even in tandem with state funding. Since a large portion of school district funding is directly tied to property taxes and property values it’s likely that the current housing crisis and the associated property devaluations will impact districts substantially larger than Star, Texas. Those larger districts may not close but must reassess allocation of their shrinking resources, perhaps seeking to enter into programming partnerships with neighboring districts. They may need to decide between classrooms or football fields, chemistry teachers or basketball coaches.
The disappearance of the local schoolyards in small towns is a sad day on the scene of Americana. The once vibrant playgrounds are in the process of being replaced by decaying brick buildings with plywood windows and unmaintained weed patches occupying the once manicured drive to the school entrance.
The personal bonds, sports rivalries and individual attention that small schools afforded are becoming memories of a bygone era, the benefits on which society no longer places sufficient value to perpetuate. The mass merchandising and warehousing concept of education will result in an uncertain outcome, but one that will likely create as many social problems as the fiscal problems it is designed to confront.
John Kliebenstein is circulation and operations manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Tuesdays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.