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Jeremy Brown, assisstant principal at Midd-West HIgh School, Thor Edmiston, principal at Midd-West High School, Dane Aucker, principal at Midd-West Middle School, and Cynthia Hutchinson, principal at Midd-West Elementary, stand inside Midd-West Elementary around the bell from Perry-West Perry Elementary School. Perry-West Perry Elementary and Middleburg Elementary merged to form Midd-West Elementary.

A Joint State Government Commission’s report about consolidating school districts does not mention any of the Valley educational centers as potential merging candidates.

A recent study conducted by the Joint State Government Commission in 2016 reviewed reports from across the country that looked at results from public school consolidations.

It cites a National Education Policy Center review that pointed out “a century of consolidation has already produced most of the efficiencies available when it comes to merging districts.”

Locally, several district leaders said they don’t think that further consolidation in the Valley will work, even internally.

Midd-West School Board Director Victor Abate said he doesn’t see any further merging within the district, but also with other neighboring districts.

“I don’t see a way that it would be humanly possible” to merge Midd-West with neighboring districts, such as Selinsgrove, Abate said.

The option of consolidating more buildings is not on the table, according to Middle School Principal Dane S. Aucker.

Shamokin Area School Board Director Charlie Shuey said geography of Shamokin Area with other school districts might prevent further district consolidation in the Valley.

That includes Midd-West, another large district, with a geography that would be difficult to merge, Aucker said.

Lewisburg Area Superintendent Steven Skalka said the size and geography of local school districts are the reason why locally mergers likely won’t happen. There’s not even conversations, he said.

Neighboring districts have “large footprints” and Skalka doesn’t see a need for a county-wide school system. It’s his opinion that such a system isn’t good because a larger district means a less personal touch from the superintendent.

Selinsgrove Area Superintendent Chad Cohrs said the most recent consolidation was in 2010 when the district closed Jackson-Penn Elementary School and moved the kindergarten classes into the Selinsgrove Elementary School.

“Since we are now consolidated into a campus setting, there is no other opportunity to merge buildings,” said Cohrs. “Merging buildings allows for more services and offerings for students and better utilization of staff.  As for merging with another school district, I don’t foresee that occurring for us. The main factors that have prevented other districts from merging are issues with teacher contracts, loss of local control, transportation issues and increased overall costs.”

Two small schools

Consolidation efforts involving several of the state’s smallest school districts — those well under 1,000 students total — stand out as potential exceptions, however, according to research by two New York professors who are nationally recognized as school finance experts, William Duncombe and John Yinger.

Combining two 300 student districts could cut overall costs by 20 percent, they wrote — while, in comparison, resulting in little, if any impact on two 1,500 student schools.

“The net benefits of consolidation are positive only for the smallest districts,” they wrote.

The downside: because those districts are so small, the savings they’d create wouldn’t mean much at the state level, they added.

While the report does not specifically list Salisbury-Elk Lick and Turkeyfoot Valley school districts in Somerset County as examples, but both are similar rural districts that are similarly-sized enrollment-wise. They share boundaries and have similar taxes — important factors, according to the report.

Salisbury Elk Lick in 2016 had 276 students with a senior calls of 22 in 2017. The latest budget was $7.1 million and has a 23.11 millage rate for real estate taxes, according to district data.

Turkeyfoot Valley in 2016 had 347 students with a senior class of 23 in 2017. The latest budget was $5.6 million, and has a 27.37 millage rate for real estate taxes, according to district data.

Even their superintendent salaries were nearly identical as of 2016 at $90,000 for Salisbury Superintendent Joe Renzi and $87,750 for Turkeyfoot Superintendent Jeff Malaspino.

Former state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-51, before he was unseated in 2016, held several public meetings about consolidating the two school districts, but both superintendents said no further conversations have been held since Mahoney left office. Mahoney in 2015 introduced legislation that would require school districts to consolidate their administrative functions on a countywide basis.

“Our school board is interested in maintaining our district here,” Renzi said. “We’re not interested in that kind of conversation. The school is academically and financially available. It’s the center of town and the community. The school board feels strongly about a school in this community.”

While the two school districts are similar in size and share boundaries, Malaspino and Renzi said the geography of the area makes transportation an issue. Turkeyfoot is 101 square miles and Salisbury is 60.

“We’re situated in the mountain,” Malaspino said. “In the winter, that’s not a great option. You’re going up and over a mountain range in one direction or another. There’s no direct route.”

Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania, is on the border of the two schools, making transportation a challenge, Renzi said. 

Turkeyfoot does share athletic services with neighboring districts to give students an opportunity to participate in what it can’t offer. For example, the district co-ops with the football program at Meyersdale Area School District, other fall sports such as soccer, volleyball, tennis or golf at Rockwood School District and wrestling at Berlin Area School District. Turkeyfoot pays a small fee — an average of $300 per student — for participation, Malaspino said.

Salisbury also co-ops with Meyersdale athletically. Myersdale students go to Salisbury for soccer and Salisbury students go to Myersdale for football, track and wrestling. Renzi also noted that Salisbury sometimes shares transportation on field trips with neighboring districts.

“We do and are willing to work with other school districts to share services,” Renzi said. 

Saint Clair Area and Pottsville in Schuylkill County share the same high school through a 10-year deal that has the former paying an annual fee of $1.6 million. The move was cited in the Joint State Commission’s 2016 study as a cost-saver that other districts might consider — and the type of carefully planned move that could eventually lead to district consolidation.

Added costs, not savings

Yelena Khanzhina, a public policy analyst at Joint State Government Commission who served as program manager on the Joint State Government Commission study on the fiscal pros and cons of consolidation, said studies across the nation have shown that sweeping statewide moves to combine districts would likely result in added costs, not savings.

But she said that doesn’t mean that more districts shouldn’t be looking to one another to find ways to save money.

There’s nothing preventing districts from sharing transportation programs or purchasing agreements for computers and other expensive supplies, she said.

And the idea of sharing buildings — particularly “anchor schools” — is beginning to gain traction, allowing two or more districts to send their students to the same high school while still retaining their own elementary schools.

“It might be something that allows three districts to send students to two schools – maybe one of them could be more specialized – instead of three or four,” Khanzina said.

“There may be a time when we start seeing more regional high schools,” she said.