9/2/2017 7:48:00 PM Local superintendents dismiss BSU study calling for consolidation of small districts
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DALEVILLE – Superintendents serving students in Madison County and nearby communities dismiss the conclusions of a study commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce Foundation suggesting consolidation of smaller districts would boost test scores.
The study completed by Michael Hicks, director of the Ball State Center for Business and Economic Research and released earlier this month, said districts with 2,000 or fewer students should consider merging with other smaller districts so more resources can be put toward academic achievement.
Local districts meeting those specifications include Alexandria Community Schools, Daleville Community Schools, Elwood Community Schools, Madison-Grant Unified Schools District and Shenandoah Schools.
“We take Dr. Hicks’ survey each time with a grain of salt,” said Daleville Superintendent Paul Garrison. “We don’t agree with that here. If we believed that you needed at least 2,000 students to perform our duties, we would have consolidated with someone because we want to do what’s best for kids. We believe we can deliver better service to our students by remaining the size we are,” he said.
In fact, about the time Mitch Daniels became governor in 2005, small districts were offered grants to explore the possibility of consolidation. Garrison said his district took advantage of the grant, conducting hearing and surveys to determine whether it would make sense to merge with nearby Cowan Community School Corp.
“The conclusion from both communities was if the state made us consolidate, we’d do it with each other. But what we heard loud and clear from our constituents was that they wanted us to stay smaller districts,” he said. “They think it gives you a more personal touch.”
As proof, Garrison points to the fact that nearly 40 percent of Daleville’s students are transfers from outside the district.
“Obviously, those parents believe this is a place to educate their students,” he said. “We must be doing something right in the eyes of some parents.”
Another factor that greatly influences how families feel about consolidation, Garrison said, is the sense of identity that grows around a school district.
“The school is seen as a community center,” he said.
Trying to provide for 'modern students'
Garrison and Dr. Scott Deetz, superintendent at Madison-Grant, said part of the problem might be in the assumptions of those directing the study that schools in 2017 are using only traditional methods of delivering education to students.
“We’re trying to provide for our modern students to the best of our ability. We’re not doing everything the traditional way,” Garrison said.
He and Deetz each said their districts offer many courses, including advanced placement and dual credit, online. Students simply don’t have to sit in rows in a classroom to get advanced courses they need, they said.
“We are rather remote, but we have access to everything because we chose to invest early on in technology,” he said. “While I think you could see a decrease in administrative costs, I’m skeptical whether you would see an increase in student outcomes.”
Those students who aren’t necessarily college bound also have access to vocational training through Madison-Grant’s partnership with the Hinds Career Center in Elwood, he said.
Deetz said his district already is a consolidated district covering two counties. Madison County’s Summitville and Grant County’s Fairmount merged their school districts in the 1960s and built a common high school that opened in 1970.
That decision, however, wasn’t so much rooted in the smallness of the districts but in their growth as bedroom communities to Anderson and Marion, Deetz said.
As Deetz found out earlier this year when the district presented a program to realign the elementary schools, transportation issues also are a factor. Parents concerned about long bus rides derailed the plan.
Deetz said the problem with consolidating small rural districts lies in the many miles children might have to travel to school. Madison-Grant, for instance, covers 178 square miles, while the district’s nearest neighbors cover 150 and 170 miles.
“In the end, with the way we’re so spread out, it’s unimaginable how we’d take care of the buildings,” he said.
Availability of resources a problem
Melissa Brisco, superintendent at Alexandria, said the size of a district has little to do with its ability to help students become successful. For instance, she noted, Alexandria-Monroe Jr.-Sr. High School has been named a silver medal high school by U.S. News and World Report.
“We have had students who leave our high school and who skip their entire first year of college because they have enough dual credit and AP credit,” she said.
Like the other districts, Alexandria has partnerships with local colleges and universities, a partnership with Hinds to provide vocational training and a partnership with Anderson Community Schools to provide some special education. The problem, she said, is the increasing financial burden, but since the district already has resolved many of these problems, there probably aren’t any more efficiencies to be realized through a consolidation.
“Every year, it gets harder and harder financially to offer the same things,” she admitted. “We’re able to provide a lot of opportunities for kids. However, with resources, you have to make choices. We are always looking for ways to be more efficient and put more money into the classrooms.”
Brisco said she doesn’t believe the challenges are really a matter of size. She said one of the study’s shortcomings is in its failure to identify when a school district has become too large.
But availability of resources is a problem regardless of school size, she said.
“You talk to any school corporation, no matter what size, and they will say the same thing,” she said.
However, Hicks defends his study, saying the locations would not need to change but districts could save money on administrative costs that could be used to add STEM-related AP classes. These, he said, can be expensive because of the costs of training teachers.
Among the expenses that could be saved in addition to administrator salaries, Hicks said, are website, insurance and board expenses.
“It’s fine to have soft-hearted feelings about schools, but the children in Indiana deserve tough-headed analysis about performance, and that’s what’s been lacking,” he said.
Hicks said it’s inevitable that smaller corporations will need to merge because of decreasing population and increasing resource need pressures. He predicts most rural school districts will merge within a generation.
“That has to happen just for the schools to remain solvent,” he said. “The vast majority of small school corporations are really not viable right now.”