Pennsylvania has more than 500 school districts, although it has just 67 counties and just 63 cities. But we have 959 boroughs and a whopping 1,546 townships, dating back to the 1800s when people got to local government offices by walking or using horses.
That is way too many school districts, boroughs and townships.
Should the state force consolidation of school districts?
Perhaps. There might be ways to make schools better and more cost-effective through consolidation.
But there are also ways to consolidate and not make schools better and more cost-effective.
One of those ways happened back in the 1960s in nearby Warren County, where I grew up and lived as a young adult.
Just after I graduated from high school, state government snookered the five school districts in Warren County into consolidating into one school district.
The idea was that economies of scale, e.g., just one superintendent instead of five, probably two high schools instead of five, would result in better education at less cost.
It did not work.
Today, the Warren County School District comprises four of the exact same five high schools that were in existence back in 1965: Warren, Sheffield, Youngsville and Eisenhower (located in a rural area between Sugar Grove and Lander). The fifth school, Tidioute High School, was closed at around the turn of the century. Its student population was simply too small to justify its continued existence as a public school.
It was resurrected in 2005 as a community charter school.
So today in 2019, the Warren County school district, including Tidioute, serves about 5,800 students — close to one-half of the size of the district when I went to school there 60 years ago. But it has the same five high school buildings.
Why weren’t school buildings consolidated?
The state allowed the then-new school district’s board to be elected from three regions, but did not create new regions. The three regions corresponded roughly to the attendance areas of Warren, Youngsville and Eisenhower schools, with Sheffield (and for awhile, Tidioute) as a swing alliance member.
Loud groups of small-community proponents, seasoned by sports fanatics determined to perpetuate Dragons, Eagles, Knights, Wolverines and Bulldogs (the schools’ mascots), blocked every rational attempt to close high schools.
Today, the Warren County district pours money into aging bricks-and-mortar buildings and ever-increasing transportation costs, leaving less money for education or for keeping taxes low.
There is a lesson here. Pennsylvania is again seeking to reduce the number of school districts.
That can be done. State government does have the authority to force districts to consolidate, whether residents like it or not.
Reporter Elizabeth Hardison of the nascent Pennsylvania Capital-Star news service, a gutsy post-newspaper internet-based entity, reported on the situation recently. She quoted former state Sen. John Wozniak of Johnstown, who used the same refrain for about 20 years in a losing effort to bring about school consolidation.
“I know how to kill a werewolf. I know how to kill a vampire. But I don’t know how to kill a school mascot,” Wozniak used to say.
In the 60 years since I graduated from high school, I have observed and reported about governmental consolidation efforts directed toward schools, local boroughs, even counties.
Most of those efforts have failed. A few have succeeded, e.g., nearby St. Marys Borough and its surrounding Benzinger Township, now one city.
During those decades, I have drawn a few conclusions about how to make consolidation work:
• Sweeten the pot. Use state money, Community Development Block Grants or similar devices, to give extra money to local governments that have consolidated. Make that money last for about a decade. By the end of that decade, the economies of scale might have taken effect.
• Abolish old boundaries. Either elect new governments at large or form pie-shaped electoral districts. Get rid of the districts used by the old governments. If that is not done, old loyalties will stymie new good government efforts.
• Require consolidation. Don’t offer it. We don’t have a choice about whether to inspect our motor vehicles, do we? State government can allow some choice, e.g., to consolidate with Neighbor A or Neighbors B and C. But staying pat with 19th Century boundaries ought not to be an option in today’s 21st Century.
• Require consolidation to take effect “down the road.” Five years strikes me as a reasonable end point. People need time to adjust. People tend to resist change.
Some readers might suggest that I am being sneaky in an attempt to revive consolidation talk between Clearfield and Lawrence Township, between DuBois and Sandy Township, or between the Clarion and Clarion-Limestone school districts.
Who? Me? Perish the thought.
But you might see the outlines of a shoe in this line of reasoning.
You know; “If the shoe fits....”
[Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, and former publisher of The Leader-Vindicator. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]