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School mergers in Pa. so rare, effects unknown

Of the hurdles that keep towns from merging schools, fear of higher taxes and lower property values are among the largest, policy analysts say.

Consolidating two or more school districts upends union contracts and budgets, plus the millage rates that support them. Inevitably, one district has higher taxes, bigger debt and lesser academic quality — or some combination of those.

The differences can appear to be a threat to taxpayers in more fortunate districts, where skeptics might worry about rising tax bills, slackened demand for real estate and depressed home values, analysts say.

Yet consolidation is so rare in Pennsylvania that researchers have few examples in recent years to forecast such effects.

“There's no guarantee that costs will go down,” said Arnold Hillman, a consultant with the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. “You really don't know until there's a serious investigation into what you're talking about.”

Hillman said many districts streamlined purchasing practices by working together through intermediate units, the state-established service agencies that cover back-office functions. Another wrinkle: States with large, countywide school districts tend to employ a lot of administrators while smaller rural districts are “really lean in administration,” he said.

Although more expensive overhead can drive up tax rates and sink property values, districts with better student performance typically nudge home prices higher, making neighborhoods more desirable to families with children. Merging a low-performing district with a better one can strengthen real estate values in the poorer district, scholars say.

“The thing here is that schools — and in particular, good schools — add value to neighborhoods. They add value to real estate,” said Kai Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State University. “The closure of a school, whether through consolidation or some other factor, is arguably going to have a negative impact on housing values.”

Pennsylvania felt a squeeze in the late 1960s when the state forced consolidation of hundreds of small districts. Small businesses died off as small-town institutions, especially high schools, shifted into regional hubs miles away, critics say.

Research shows poverty tends to be less severe — and housing values higher — in small towns that retain their schools, Schafft said.

Warren County School District, near Erie, struck some middle ground, running a countywide operation that covers 792 square miles under one administration. Among the biggest districts in Pennsylvania by land mass, it consolidated elementary schools but maintains four high schools. It streamlined transportation under a central department that oversees 10,250 daily miles of bus travel, nearly 1.9 million miles each year.

The district's cost per student is about 10 percent below the state's average.

“I think it works here,” said Warren Superintendent William Clark, touting shared resources among the distinct high schools. “Communities maintain their identity.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer.


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