County School Administrators Speak Out On Merger Proposal
Finding themselves at odds with members of the public at times over what is best for their student bodies as a whole, local administrators seemed to have formed a concensus among themselves on this same topic when recently approached to comment on a proposal by Gov. Ed Rendell to merge the state's public school systems into 100 or fewer districts.
As a follow-up to statements publicly aired last week by Central Fulton School District Superintendent Dr. Julia Cigola, fellow superintendents Dr. Merrill Arnold of Forbes Road and Ralph Scott of Southern Fulton shared their views with the "News" on how a merger of area school districts would not directly benefit Fulton County or similar small schools.
"Many citizens have chosen to live in small districts for just this reason - their small size and their personal attention to students. Students and their families are part of closely knit communities. If the student population of newly consolidated districts will be targeted as 5,000 by the state, doesn't that mean all of Fulton County would have to consolidate with a neighboring county?" questioned Superintendent Scott. "How long of a bus ride are parents willing to tolerate for their children? Will students lose educational opportunities in the arts and athletics by being a student in a large school district?"
In his annual address of the state budget two weeks ago, Gov. Rendell said 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.
The consolidation, according to Gov. Rendell, would in turn aid in alleviating the tax burden on property owners across the state. The last 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 northwest of Pittsburgh will complete their merger as a result of declining enrollment numbers.
Touching further on the governor's plan, Scott went on to state that smaller school districts "carefully scrutinize" taxpayers' dollars as living in a small, rural community those dollars can be directly linked to a certain neighbor's face or community member's name in comparison to larger schools that have generally have more access to resources and funding sources.
"In my opinion, the larger the bureaucracy, the more waste there is. I am skeptical of claims that consolidation will result in savings significant enough to justify the loss of local control of small school districts. If larger districts are so desirable and efficient, then how would one explain the student achievement performance record of the Philadelphia School District and the state's willingness to permit the formation of magnet and charter schools?" said Scott.
In the event the merger plans are voted down by the General Assenbly, the consolidation plans would be turned over to the commonwealth's Board of Education. Superintendent Scott stated the expertise in drawing boundary lines should instead fall upon the shoulders of the local taxpayers, who know their area the best.
"I do not support this concept. I believe the required consolidation of districts would create more problems than it would solve, and any attempts at consolidation should come from the parents and local communities themselves, not from an appointed commission or state board," concluded Scott. "If the informed citizens of multiple school districts choose to consolidate or if parents choose to live in a large school district, then I support their right to do so and wish them the best. This is America ... . "
Superintendent Dr. Merrill Arnold noted the governor's proposal would also not pose a benefit to the Forbes Road School District that has a notably smaller student body of 448 students (minus the Red Birds program) and a full-time staff complement of 81 employees. He will be taking leave of the district due to ongoing health issues at the conclusion of June for the purpose of retirement.
"This is once again aimed at taking local control away for state control," Arnold stated. Furthermore, as a reminder of how schools were previously operated in the county, Arnold added that at one time the entire county was overseen by one superintendent.
"They did away with the county superintendent position because it was ineffective looking at issues such as the number of kids and busing. I could not disagree more with this consolidation concept," he concluded.