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Consolidation threatens neighborhood schools

Harrisburg Sunday Patriot-News
Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009

By Thomas Hylton

Facing the worst financial crisis in decades, Gov. Rendell has proposed the consolidation of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts into 100 as a way of lowering costs and spreading the school tax burden more evenly.  Editorial pages across the commonwealth have been mostly positive about the idea.

Before we all jump on the “bigger-is-better” bandwagon, we need to consider the full consequences of creating huge districts serving widely varying populations.  We don’t how much, if any, money was saved after Pennsylvania’s wave of school consolidations in the 1950s and 1960s.  We do know it had a ruinous impact on the state’s traditional towns and countryside.

When small school districts merged, hundreds of neighborhood schools were closed and replaced with consolidated schools on the urban fringe to which all students had to be bused.  These new schools spawned car-dependent development and drained the life from older established communities.  Statewide, the loss of neighborhood schools has been a major factor in what the Brookings Institution calls the “hollowing out” of Pennsylvania – disinvestment in older urban areas in favor of developing exurbs.  In the last 50 years, no institution has done more to promote the conversion of farmland and open space into housing and other development than school districts building campuses in the middle of nowhere.

Even small mergers had negative impacts.  For example, both Steelton and Highspire once had elementary schools and high schools within walking distance of all homes.  Now, there are no schools in either borough.  Students in the merged district attend an elementary-high school complex beyond district boundaries in Swatara Township.

With each passing year, more neighborhood schools disappear.  Last year, the Hamburg Area School District in Berks County closed elementary schools in the borough of Hamburg and two villages and replaced them with a 750-student school on a rural tract.

Next year, in adjacent Schuylkill County, the elementary school in Ringtown will be closed and its students bused south over three mountains to the 900-student North Schuylkill Elementary School, which earlier replaced schools in Ashland and Frackville.

Neighborhood schools are also being lost to a new trend called “clustering” – the configuration of elementary schools to serve just one or two grade levels.  The Annville-Cleona School District, for example, has configured its three elementary schools to serve grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-6.  This guarantees busing and forces parents to deal with at least three schools during their child’s elementary school years, no matter where they live.

The Eastern Lebanon County School District will do the same next year, when it closes two historic – and walkable -- elementary schools in Schaefferstown and Myerstown.  A new school will be built in the countryside for grades 3-5, and the district’s remaining two elementary schools will be reconfigured as K-2 schools.

Joseph Oravitz, who retired in 2001 as executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association after 40 years in public education, said the consolidation of school districts in the 1950s and 1960s dramatically changed community life.

“School consolidation brought about an era of costly new building,” Oravitz said, “and once we went to larger centralized schools, kids started spending an enormous amount of time on buses that was lost instructional time.” Today, more than 75 percent of Pennsylvania public school children are bused at an annual cost of $1.1 billion.  Besides wasting money and energy, busing adds to traffic congestion, contributes to childhood obesity, and generates greenhouse gases.

Large consolidated schools haven’t improved education, either.  An extensive body of literature shows most students do better in small schools.  That’s why the National Association of Elementary School Principals recommends elementary schools should have fewer than 500 students, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in its landmark publication, “Breaking Ranks,” recommends high schools should be broken into units serving no more than 600 students.

Gov. Rendell acknowledged as much in his budget address.  “Let’s be clear,” he said. “We all agree small schools are important, but reducing the number of districts doesn’t automatically mean bigger schools.” Yet given Pennsylvania’s history, and America’s car culture, it is likely that consolidation will accelerate the trend of school sprawl unless legislation unequivocally directs otherwise.

Two years ago, I edited and published a brochure, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and distributed to all school districts, promoting neighborhood schools.   The brochure, called “Renovate or Replace,” contains essays from Gov. Rendell’s top cabinet officers arguing that neighborhood schools can help sustain older communities, protect the environment, reduce transportation costs, and cultivate healthy habits by encouraging walking.

The Department of Education must now go beyond exhortation.  Standards must be included in any consolidation legislation to ensure that walkable neighborhood schools are preserved, and the placement, size, and location of new schools is designed to reinforce traditional towns, not eviscerate them.

The number of school districts is negotiable.  Striving for sustainable development is not.








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