2009-02-12 / Front Page

Rendell Proposes School Mergers

Legislature asked to include money for study in 2009-10 state budget
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz STAFF WRITER

On the heels of announcing a spending plan for 2009-10 that includes a 2.5 percent increase in the areas of education, prison systems and health coverage, Gov. Ed Rendell last week also publicly called for a merger of Pennsylvania's school districts to alleviate the tax burden on property owners.

In his annual state budget address last Wednesday, Rendell stated he wanted a bipartisan commission comprised of 12 legislative representatives to begin recalculating district boundary lines and formulate as many as two "implementation plans" to consolidate the state's 501 public schools to 100 or less.

Once created, the merger plans would be put before the General Assembly for a final vote within a six-month time frame. If rejected, however, the plans for consolidation would, in turn, fall upon the shoulders of the state Board of Education.

Furthermore, in his announcement, the governor also asked the Legislature to include the money needed to complete the study in the 2009-10 budget.

The last call or state-ordered merger of Pennsylvania's public schools occurred in the 1950s and '60s, resulting in a reduction from 2,700 school districts to 1,900. The existing number of school districts, 501, is expected to drop by one this July when the Center Area and Monaca school districts, located to the northwest of Pittsburgh, will complete their merger as a result of declining enrollment numbers.

After speaking with the governor about his merger proposal, Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr. of that 30th Senatorial District, which spans Fulton County and bordering areas, told the "News" he expects to be deeply involved in any decision on this matter by virtue of his recent appointment as chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee.

"At face value, having 500 school districts does appear to be inefficient," said Eichelberger. " ... In conversations over the past couple of days with members of the Senate and other key officials, it sounds like the governor's final number of 100 districts is too drastic. Two hundred thirty to 250 districts seems to be where the discussion is centered."

Eichelberger added the discussions also seem to revolve around the need to combine administrative duties and not close area schools.

"At this point, I need to see the criteria that would be used in the consolidation process before I could speculate on how the districts of Fulton County or this region would be affected," he said. "Although we don't seem to have the issues of wealth, language and ethnic disparity that some areas of the state have, we have transportation concerns if schools were to be closed."

Even with so many unknowns and factors, Central Fulton School District Superintendent Dr. Julia Cigola stated consolidation could work and should bear careful examination or scrutiny. However, the end result, she said, should still focus on high quality of education for area students balanced with fiscal responsibility to taxpayers.

"If a consolidation were just to involve Fulton County, then we might be looking at a situation where the elementary students would remain at their current elementary buildings and then have either one or two middle schools (depending on student population) designated in the county and one county high school," stated Cigola, who noted even with the shifting of students she does not foresee a means of reducing the number of certain administrative positions such as special needs, guidance coun- selors and principals.

"It's my understanding that about 50 plus years ago, there was one superintendent for the county. If the structure would move back to one superintendent, there would still be the need for at least two or three other administrative positions to cover professional development, curriculum and instruction and all the state grant programs," she said. "This type of consolidation would also mean transportation issues ... I would also think class sizes would become larger at the sixth through 12th grades than they currently are now. Would we be looking at layoffs or furloughs of administrators, teachers, and support staff?"

Cigola also pointed out that issues related to athletics and extracurricular activities would be reviewed in a different manner as a result of combining school districts. Furthermore, students could possibly find themselves competing or vying for a slot on a sporting team or for a position in band, chorus and musicals.

"Another item to mention is that if student numbers for these new consolidated districts are to be in the 5,000 range, then a consolidation of Fulton County schools alone would not make that happen. We might be looking at a Fulton/Franklin School District, including perhaps Fannett Metal and Tuscarora school districts," concluded Cigola. "Transportation of students would definitely be more complex were that to happen. As far as finances and how consolidation will benefit the taxpayers, I would ask who pays for the past, current and future building projects and budget deficits, if they exist, of any districts to be consolidated?"

Forbes Road Superintendent Dr. Merrill Arnold and Southern Fulton Superintendent Ralph Scott were unavailable to comment on the governor's call for consolidation.

Tim Allwein, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) has gone on record publicly and stated that he hopes to work side-by-side with the bipartisan commission throughout the creation of implementation plans. Allwein, though, is not convinced that a merger would produce large amounts of savings as a need would likely exist to hire additional office administrators to oversee programs and grants.

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