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April 7, 2014

Report: Small public school districts in Indiana should merge

ANDERSON, Ind. — From an economist’s perspective, consolidating Indiana’s smallest school districts makes perfect sense. Many districts face rising costs and declining enrollment. A merger could mean lower overhead and operating costs.

Several academic studies over the past decade have said as much. But the idea hasn’t gained much traction.

The latest entry in the ongoing consolidation debate came recently from the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER).

The policy brief, called “School Corporation Size and the Cost of Education,” argues that the merger of Indiana’s smallest K-12 schools will be necessary to reduce overhead and management expenses.

Legislation introduced several years ago to force consolidation of schools with student populations of less than 1,000 students “just fell flat on its face,” said Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson. “There may be places where it makes sense, but I think that’s up to the communities to decide for themselves,” Austin said.

But Michael Hicks, director of CBER, said a time is coming when school and community leaders may have no other alternative.

“Many of Indiana’s school districts are facing dwindling enrollment at a time when costs of providing a quality education are increasing,” said Michael Hicks, CBER director. He co-wrote the report with Dagney Faulk, the center’s research director.

“At some point, we are going to have to look at ways to reduce the school districts’ overhead while maintaining the ability to provide quality education in each community, a key to developing the state’s economy,” Hicks added.

The center determined in a 2010 study that consolidating school corporations to about 2,000 students — referred to as the minimum efficient corporation size — would lower the cost of providing public education.

John Trout, superintendent of the Madison-Grant United School Corporation — with a 2012 student population of 1,415, according to the CBER report — said the only issue that matters to him as an educator is what impacts student performance.

“I’m not aware of any research that shows central office consolidation improves performance,” he said.

The only way to achieve significant cost savings if two school districts merge is to close schools, which means that “one community is going to have to make a significant sacrifice to join another,” Trout said.

Hicks said the center didn’t issue its report with the idea that immediate change would result but instead serve as part of a larger discussion about the size and efficiency of local government.

Still, a sense of urgency does exist to “think about education a little more thoughtfully than we have,” Hicks said, because in the coming years county-to-county population migration will likely be driven by school quality.

If that proves to be true, “communities with low quality schools and school districts that perform poorly will lose students and money,” he said.

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