A study released this week contends Hoosier school districts with fewer than 2,000 students should consider merging with other small districts to raise testing scores. The study was commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and conducted by Ball State University's Center for Business and Economic Research.
The study report landed with a thud among rural school officials in southern Indiana.
"I've been working on my dissertation," said Travis Madison, Barr-Reeve Superintendent. "The one thing I know is that you can get whatever answer you want. All you have to do is phrase the question to get it."
Barr-Reeve has roughly 850 students enrolled this fall. That is less than half of the 2,000 student threshold the State Chamber recommends. The system's schools are regularly honored at Four-Star schools with high ISTEP scores and good numbers on post graduation placement.
"Our scores stack up with anybody," said Madison. "Eighty percent of our grads are deemed college-ready. We are consistently doing well on all of the measures. We don't offer every class under the sun, but what we do offer we do well. We partner with colleges so that our kids are receiving dual credits they can use after high school.
"We are expanding our technology so that if there are classes a student wants or needs they can get them online. We also have cooperative agreements with neighboring schools so that if there is something one of our students want like ROTC they can go to another school and get that class."
Madison says that there is a group that is composed of some legislators and the Chamber of Commerce that have been pushing this same agenda for years.
"This is the same claim we got back when Mitch Daniels was first elected," said Madison. "They think larger school corporations are more efficient and they put together information to build that narrative. These legislators and the Chamber want everything in a box. They think small communities can't make their own good decisions."
But Madison is quick to point out that Barr-Reeve was doing well financially until the state changed the funding and managed to pass a referendum that put it back on a good financial track. He says the state's complaint about too much money going to administration and not enough going to the classroom does not wash.
"I am the only administrator in our central office," said Madison. "Every time the state comes up with some report or unfunded mandate or special testing someone has to administer that. Someone has to take care of that. I take care of most of it. My staff does some of it. The building administrators take on some.
"We try not to make those part of the teacher's work because they have enough to do to try and keep up with the constantly shifting standards and testing. They can complain all they want, but they are not making it any easier."
State officials say that in 2014, 154 of Indiana's 289 school corporations had enrollments of fewer than 2,000 students and 94 percent of them were next door with another small district.
Madison says the message out of Indianapolis about school size is inconsistent.
"If small is bad, then why have the voucher program for private schools and charter schools," he said. "Those are all smaller schools and the state tells us how the smaller class size and one-on-one attention helps the students. They are talking out of both sides of their mouth."
State officials say they selected a 2,000 enrollment for the study because it has been identified in previous studies as the minimum number of efficiency. The study predicts small districts that increase their enrollment could experience an increase in the average student's performance on SAT of 20.5 points and 14.9 percent increase in students passing AP exams.
Madison contends the study is building numbers to create a conclusion.
"We have found that when it comes to success, size doesn't matter," he said. "It's about the people. The student who show up ready to learn, the faculty and staff that are committed to providing quality education and parents who support their school and community."
The Chamber study notes that many of the rural districts in Indiana have continued to see declining enrollments. From 2006 to 2014, 85 district experienced declines of 100 or more students.
School officials in Daviess County question that assumption that enrollment declines are due to population shifts to urban centers and the loss of manufacturing jobs. The county has had a growing overall population over the last decade and that has reflected in larger enrollments not just at Barr-Reeve, but also at North Daviess and Washington.
"This is really another attack on public education," said Madison. "For some reason there are some people who want private enterprise to take over education. Let's remember that Indiana pulled $300 million out of public education and never replaced it. This looks like their way of covering that they dropped the ball on funding."
Brinegar applauded action by the recent Indiana General Assembly that provided consolidating school districts with a one-time incentive of $250 per student. The grant can go towards the professional fees associated with the consolidation or for teacher stipends.
Madison points out that Barr-Reeve has considered consolidation and overwhelmingly rejected it.
"I would much rather see the state and federal government do its job of funding the schools and then leave us alone and let us do our job," he said. "If the time ever becomes right for our schools to consolidate we will know it and we will do it."
In the meantime, small school Barr-Reeve will continue to work to provide the education the community has demanded.
"We can't control what they do in Indianapolis," said Madison. "All we can control is what we do in Montgomery and we are working to make certain what happens locally produces good results for our students. We are working so that they can face no limits and I like what we're doing."
CNHI Statehouse reporter Scott L. Miley contributed to this story.