Sunday, March 29, 2009

43 years ago, area school merger failed to save money

Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 4:13 AM EST
Forty-three years ago, Hazleton Area School District was formed when five community-based educational “units” merged into a mega-district that today services 16 municipalities in Luzerne, Schuylkill and Carbon counties.

The merger occurred in 1966, just two years before then-school Director Pat Capece began the first of his 24 consecutive years on the board.

Consolidation, he recalled, was sold on the argument that it would save money spent on the education system.

It instead came with a price, Capece said.

“It didn’t work out,” he said. “The state said it would be less costly for consolidating. Unfortunately, it was more.”

In the years following the merger, community schools closed, transportation costs increased and communities essentially became cliques — with each fighting to maintain its own identity, he said.

“Bigger is not always better,” he said. “Too big is not good.”

Today, Hazleton Area is the 17th largest of Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts. About 10,300 students are enrolled in the 250-square-mile district, which is considering its second multi-million-dollar expansion program since 2004. It has a projected $108 million budget for 2009-2010.

Governor’s plan

On Feb. 5, Gov. Ed Rendell called on legislators to develop a plan to reduce the state’s 500 public school districts to no more than 100...

...Administrative costs are about the only area where Victor says consolidating could yield savings.

“The only changes that would probably occur would be administrative,” he said. “You still will need the same amount of teachers — they are based on the number of students. You will still need the same amount of buildings.”

Larger schools require a more complex administrative hierarchy that would include a transportation director and curriculum directors — positions Weatherly Area does not need, he said.

Coming from the substantially larger Hazleton Area School District, Victor said larger schools do have some benefits.

Schools with more students can offer courses such as honors engineering and can offer extracurricular activities such as football, Victor said.

At Weatherly, however, it wouldn’t make sense to hire a teacher for an honors class that would appeal to a handful of students, Victor said.

“But then with the small schools too, there are many advantages,” he continued. “You are familiar with total school operations and you’re more actively involved in each program. In a larger school, you have to rely on others to do those things and you lose touch with a lot of those things.”

Shenandoah Valley Superintendent Stanley G. Rakowsky recently called Rendell’s proposal “ill-advised.”

Rakowsky wrote to local elected officials, asking them not to support the proposal if it were put to a vote.

“Indeed, the governor’s suggestion strikes at the very heart of local control, small schools and the quality of life we have created that has the school as the center of the community,” Rakowsky wrote.

A union’s view

The “bigger is better” philosophy from the mid-1960s cost Hazleton Area its local schools without delivering the promised savings, said John Busher, elementary vice president and chief negotiator for the Hazleton Area Education Association.

“The proposal scares me,” Busher said. “When we lost our local schools — many of us in the district for years worked at a time at (schools in) Conyngham, Nuremberg and West Hazleton — we lost our sense of community spirit.”

Consolidation would create school-leadership issues such as election of school directors, Busher said.

Even if the commonwealth were to revert to a county education system, like Maryland, savings on superintendents would be offset by administrators needed to serve on the “local level,” Busher said.

“We’ve never really seen the savings in the school district,” he said.

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