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Consolidation: Does It Really Pay?

School district consolidation can leave communities hurt, angry, and waiting for cost savings that may not materialize.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of public school districts in the U.S. dropped from 117,108 in 1939 to 13,629 in 2009, despite a doubling in student population.

Sarah Kemp, a researcher for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that between 2008 and 2013, 73.5% of rural Wisconsin districts experienced enrollment decline. Numbers are similar in other states. 

Kemp projects a 3% to 5% decline in rural enrollment over the next five years, with as much as a 10% drop in some areas.

Consolidation may be considered as a cost-saving measure, but it often brings increased transportation and facilities expenses. Salaries and technology are generally raised to the highest level district-wide.

According to Education Northwest, consolidation may increase costs for more than a decade. Cooperative purchasing agreements between districts, teacher- and student-sharing, and other measures may help struggling districts financially without forcing them to give up their identity.

Photo: Jayson Prater takes his sons on a tour of his alma mater, Hamburg (Iowa) high school, before it closed. Hamburg consolidated with another district, but that relationship was short-lived. Today, students in kindergarten through eighth grade attend school in Hamburg, then they go to high school at one of the nearby districts. Read more about Hamburg schools in the link below.

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