HARRISBURG — After years of jockeying for support for proposals to trim the number of school districts in Pennsylvania, former state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County, reached a weary conclusion.
“The hardest animal to kill in Pennsylvania is the school mascot,” he said. Wozniak is now retired and serving as a commissioner for the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
In a state with 67 counties, there are 500 school districts.
School lobbying groups are opposed to mandatory mergers and there have been few cases where leaders of neighboring school districts have agreed that a merger is mutually-beneficial.
Pennsylvania’s requirement that mergers result only from situations in which both school districts want to combine was blasted in a July report by EdBuild, a New Jersey-based nonprofit focused on education reform.
The group highlighted the case of Beaver County’s Midland School District, which was financially struggling and sought to merge with one of its neighbors. After being rejected 13 times, Midland ended up reaching an agreement to transport its students to a school district across the border in Ohio because it couldn’t find a partner in Pennsylvania.
“Midland’s 40-year plight is only one example of the many communities throughout Pennsylvania for whom no long-term solution is in sight,” the group noted. “Of the 18 known Pennsylvania school districts that have sought mergers with their neighbors since 2000 (which together enroll almost 29,000 students), all but one have failed.”
The group noted that Pennsylvania is far from alone in failing to push consolidation of school districts aggressively enough. It’s one of 39 states that limiting mergers to agreed-upon combinations.
Using this approach “let districts sink or swim on their own — with predictably poor results for schools, students, and communities.”
The only full merger in decades came in 2009-2010, and created the Central Valley School District, formed out of the combination of the Center Area School District and the Monaca School District, both in Beaver County.
In 2009, then-Gov. Ed Rendell proposed trimming the number of school districts from 500 to 100. The idea went nowhere. Still, the notion that the state could do more to encourage districts to combine to better reflect changing population patterns and improve economies of scale in administrative costs has been a simmering controversy.
The number of school districts and wide variety of sizes of school districts across Pennsylvania raised real questions about how equal the quality of education is from district to district, said state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair County. Eichelberger had served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee but he’s leaving office at the end of this term, having failed in a bid to win a seat in Congress.
Eichelberger said the disparities are reflected in the number and types of sports available to students, as well as the fact that larger more wealthy school districts can offer a wider variety of specialized classes than smaller or poorer districts.
The idea of merging school districts have always been controversial, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a Widener University professor of political science who has written about the issue.
In the 1960s, state leaders disregarded local opposition and mandated that the number of districts be trimmed by setting a target minimum of 4,000 students per district. Those efforts only followed more than a decade of cajoling while state officials tried to get local school officials to voluntarily find merger partners, Leckrone said.
A 2007 analysis by the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee concluded that economies of scale seem best in districts of about 3,000 students.
Even so, there are now 13 school districts with fewer than 500 students and 79 with fewer than 1,000.
In the 1960s, reforms cut the number of districts from 2,277 in 1960 to 669 by 1970. In the ‘70s, the number was cut down to 501.
Leckrone said that in the 1960s, Gov. David Lawrence and Gov. William Scranton were motivated to push for consolidation by “external factors,” notably the sense that the state had to do a better job (of) keeping pace with Russia. While the issue of school mergers has continued to be a source of periodic discussion, he said it’s not clear that there’s a similar source of pressure to drive the issue now.
Any effort to force mergers runs into headwinds from the “tradition of localism” in Pennsylvania, he said.
In addition, the mergers five decades ago involved “the low-hanging fruit” of obvious combinations, he said.
The result is that in most cases, the existing school districts borders are there for a reason. In many cases, the divisions are tied to class and race.
“There are socio-economic factors,” said John Sarandrea, the soon-to-be-retired superintendent of the New Castle School District.
That was an issue in the Midland case, the EdBuild report found. At one point, Midland had gotten a neighboring Pennsylvania district to accept its students.
The Midland students “many of whom were nonwhite and from poorer homes, encountered hostility in their new school,” and eventually the Midland students were told to find another school, according to the report.
The EdBuild report noted that more recently, the Columbia Borough School District in Lancaster County, in 2017 explored the idea of merging with the more-wealthy Hempfield School District, which almost completely surrounds it. After conversations with Hempfield officials made clear that they weren’t interested in a merger, the plan was scuttled.
As a result of Pennsylvania’s current merger policies, “the more fortunate district holds the power to throw a lifeline or to withhold one. And without the prospect of any real benefit, well-off districts will almost certainly choose to maintain the status quo, leaving their neighbors stranded,” the report concluded.
School leaders are opposed to efforts to mandate mergers, said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
Neighboring districts that consider a combination have almost always found that there are disparities either in financial health, debt, tax rate or employee compensation that prove too daunting to overcome, “Typically, when you look at all those aspects, the merger gets difficult,” he said.
Proponents of mergers may overestimate administrative savings. They fail to account for the fact that eliminating a superintendent may lead to the hiring of other administrators to help manage a larger combined school.
Mergers, he said, “are a simplistic answer to a complex problem.”