Arcadia and Vanlue discuss school district merger

In November, voters in two tiny Hancock County communities will go to the polls and decide if they want to investigate the possibility of merging their equally small school districts.

Voters in Arcadia and Vanlue, about 100 miles northwest of Columbus, face the decision of whether they want to gather the facts and weigh the pros and cons of a merger. The Arcadia schools serve roughly 575 students, nearly 100 of which are students who reside outside the district but are schooled in Arcadia under open enrollment, according to district officials. Vanlue school district serves about 230 students.

“This issue [of merger] has been going on for 40 years. The last vote was in the eighties and we missed talking about it by 10 votes from the Vanlue side,” said Mike Recker, Arcadia’s co-chair on the proposed study commission. Recker expects significant savings by reducing duplicated services such as transportation and administrative expenses. Arcadia, for example, employs two principals and one superintendent. But exactly how much might be saved won’t be known until the commission completes its work – assuming voters give the go-ahead for its completion. Even then, voters still must formally approve a merger in another vote.

Reducing the cost of education, especially now, with nearly every school district facing budget pressures, is giving school-district mergers fresh impetus. Administrative costs in particular are driving the conversations.

Districts are trying to balance budgets by cutting non-instructional costs and asking taxpayers for more money to try and avoid layoffs of teachers, even though classroom personnel are, by far, the greatest expense facing schools. Two Wayne County districts have taken cost-cutting a step further, without actually merging. The districts in Rittman and Orrville have consolidated several top administrative positions, including the superintendent and treasurer, to save money. But such efforts are so rare as to be mostly non-existent and the question remains whether Ohio needs – and state tax dollars ought to be used to maintain – 600+ school districts for its 1.8 million students.

In February, a study by the Brookings Institution and the Greater Ohio Policy Center said Ohio ought to eliminate one-third of its 614 school districts.  Some mergers seem like no-brainers. The North Bass Island school district at Lake Erie has only two students and both go to school at Put-in-Bay on nearby South Bass Island. Middle Bass Island school district has four students who also go to school at Put-in-Bay.

The Brookings-Greater Ohio study recommended merging districts smaller than somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 students, which would leave about 400 districts.

According to Brookings-Greater Ohio, Ohio’s administrative costs are almost 50 percent higher than the national average, while the state ranks 47th in spending in the classroom. The average in administrative costs, statewide, is 21 cents for each dollar spent, although districts vary from 11 cents in Lakewood, near Cleveland, to 68 cents in Jefferson Township in Montgomery County.

Looking at it another way, earlier this year, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute analyzed district pupil-administrator ratios and found the state average is 150.2 pupils per administrator, with the most top-heavy district (Bettsville Local) at 37.4 and the leanest, New Albany-Plain Local, at 308.6. The analysis found, not surprisingly, that the smallest districts had fewer students per administrator than the largest districts.

A recent analysis by the Columbus Dispatch made similar findings.  The newspaper compared administrative spending by the Westerville City Schools with that of eight smaller districts in Tuscarawas County that together serve about the same number of students as Westerville.  Westerville spent $3.3 million on central-office staff, compared with $5.7 million among the Tuscarawas districts; and Westerville employed fewer than half the central-office staff as those districts combined.

Fordham has previously pointed out that consolidating just a couple of the top administrative roles in the state’s smallest districts (about half the total) could yield as much as $40 million annually in near-term savings.

District mergers and consolidations are being discussed not only in Ohio but in Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, and elsewhere. In Michigan, a Michigan State University study, paid for by the Booth newspaper chain and released in August, predicted that district mergers in that state could save $612 million annually after three years.

But it’s not a one-sided debate. A study by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association said there have been no proven savings for district consolidations in that state and that student achievement has been damaged by the efforts.

“The issue seems more simplistic than it really is. Schools have always had the option to consolidate,” said Scott Ebright, deputy director of communications services for the Ohio School Boards Association. “If consolidation is such a good idea why haven’t we done it all over the state recently?”

He also questioned whether Ohio administrative costs are as skewed as the Brookings-Greater Ohio report suggests.

Ebright said that when two districts merge, the new board can choose to tax the merged district at whichever of the tax rates of the old districts was higher. And, while there may be savings from consolidating back office and administrative staff, salaries of teachers can be higher.

“In most cases taxes go up in the ‘losing’ district,” Ebright said.

Ebright thinks the goal of merger proponents is to have one county-wide district in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. He used Licking County, a rural-suburban district east of Columbus of about 160,000 residents with 10 public school districts, including Granville, an upscale community with good schools and a high tax rate.

“If everyone in Licking County wanted what Granville has, it’s going to take dollars to do it,” he said. The last voluntary mergers were in 1988 (three) and 1989 (one), but the trend more recently has been for districts to split, Ebright said.

Bitterness around forced consolidations has been given as a reason for why levies fail in some newly consolidated districts. “People don’t forget,” Ebright notes.

Americans have always been fond of their local schools. They not only educate young people but also serve as community centers and important points of community identification. Just about the first thing pioneers did in a new territory was to erect a school and every little hamlet across the country had one. By 1937 that added up to 119,000 separate school districts in the United States. By the end of the 20th century, however, the number of districts in the United States had shrunk dramatically to about 15,000 and to about 14,000 by 2005.

Ohio has seen similar consolidations. In 1915, the state had 2,674 school districts, according to the Ohio School Boards Association. By 1936, financial fallout from the Great Depression and encouragement from the state had reduced the number of districts to about 2,000. Another push for consolidation came in the 1950s. By 1960, the number of districts had been halved to 984. By 1974, there were 617 school districts operating in Ohio.

How low can we go? Well, Florida and Maryland are notable examples of states with county-wide school districts. Florida has 67 districts serving about 2.6 million children and Maryland has 24 districts serving around 840,000 children. Hawaii has one state-wide district serving its 179,500 children.

It does not appear that the Buckeye State is on the cusp of another great purging, especially one that would reduce Ohio to 88 county school districts. But how far the current interest in consolidation goes depends on how seriously state lawmakers, traditionally gun shy at upsetting voters on the touchy issue of local control of schools, embrace it and how vehemently local residents in love with their districts and their sports teams rise against it.

In Ohio, Arcadia and Vanlue certainly meet the Brookings-Greater Ohio study’s merger criteria. Value is the second-smallest and Arcadia the 23rd smallest district in the state. Even after they merged, the combined district still would be well under the 2,000-student lower limit in the Brookings-Greater Ohio study.

“Merger makes a whole lot of sense, at least on the Vanlue side. Vanlue is limited to resources that are available and what it can offer educationally to our students. (The district does) a decent job but we’re doing our students a disservice by maintaining the direction were headed,” said Charles Wagner, Vanlue co-chair of the study commission.

“Since we’ve been in the district, enrollment has steadily decreased. There comes a point in time when you’re limited in what you can do because of your size,” Wagner said.

The proposal to study a merger must be approved by voters in both districts and Recker and Wagner think that will happen.

“A lot of people want answers to the questions,” Wagner said.

While merger seems popular in Arcadia, the Arcadia board has taken a hands-off approach.  In Vanlue, where residents seem more apathetic, the school board has appropriated funds to pay for an attorney to draft ballot language.

Arcadia and Vanlue are about 11 miles apart. Vanlue’s district borders cover about 48 square miles of territory while Arcadia includes about 61 square miles. The combined district would be large – 109 square miles, although Recker said area residents don’t think twice about driving 10 miles anywhere. (The average district in Ohio is 67 square miles in size.)

Neither district has much commercial or business real estate but both have vast amounts of farmland that is covered under the state’s agriculture land valuation formula. This limits tax collections so the districts are land-rich but tax-poor.

In Arcadia, Recker said, the district’s income from the large number of open-enrollment students is keeping the district afloat. Trying to attract more students from outside the district, however, would not seem to be a viable long-term financial option, he said.

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