Friday, May 30, 2008

Venango County School Consolidation

(News-Herald, May 29) Valley Grove schools are struggling with administrative cuts. Oil City School District ranks on the undesirable end of the poverty scale. Franklin schools are whittling down staff a piece of teacher at a time. Cranberry School District has rejected a fact-finding report in current contract negotiations. And every school district is wrestling with bus fleet gas costs.

There are other challenges. Most of the county school building boom came in the sixties; districts are looking at aging school buildings that need serious attention, even as the population of those buildings is shrinking.

County schools carry more than the average state percentage of learning support students (what we once called “special ed”). Our regional reputation as a welfare mecca provides a steady influx of students from below the poverty line. Both groups bring special needs and challenges to school.

And lest we forget, the gummint wants every student to be above average within the next five or six years.

To meet all these challenges, schools need strong teaching staffs. That means recruiting the best teachers, but that requires money and creative aggressiveness in hiring. It also means getting the best out of the people we do hire, but that requires bold and clear leadership to train and develop staff.

Lately all of these issues are under frequent discussion, which means that it’s time, once again, to bring up the 800-pound gorilla that’s always in the room when we talk about local schools.

Venango County does not need four separate school districts.

Forty years ago, the picture was different. Franklin was considering building a separate Middle School, and the district was sending portable schoolrooms to Utica to deal with growing student population. In 1968, Franklin High School graduated 228 students; Cranberry, 184; Rocky Grove, 125. Oil City handed diplomas to 290 students. Thirty years ago, Rocky Grove still put out over 130 grads. Franklin easily topped 200, and Oil City graduated over 300.

But after another decade passed, the picture changed. RGHS graduating classes have not seen triple digits since; the current senior class is barely more than half the size of the group thirty years ago. Valley Grove is the one district of the four without a projected downward trend. Cranberry (125 seniors) and Franklin (under 200) both show downward trends for the next twelve years. Oil City (177 seniors) can expect some fluctuations, but no actual long-term growth.

In short, all four districts are maintaining facilities built for larger populations than they currently serve.

These are not easy choices. Trying to jam students into too-small facilities is ugly business, so districts must be careful not to lose capacity they could someday need. On the other hand, maintaining facilities for “ghost students” is expensive.

On top of that, the vagaries of PA school law lead to oddly-shaped districts; every morning many Venangoland students ride the bus through one district in order to arrive in another. At the very least, not very fuel-efficient.

How many districts do we really need? Two would be plenty. Oil City could absorb Cranberry and still serve fewer students than it did thirty years ago. Franklin plus Valley Grove would create a larger district than in the past, but in all cases, we would end up with a district with more than enough capacity, saving money now and preserving space that could be used in the event of a sudden influx of students.

It makes sense. Each new district could have separate high schools and middle schools—a major educational bonus. The combined schools could offer more programs, staff more efficiently, save money by cutting redundant administrative personnel. Transportation costs could be trimmed. And really—our students already play sports together, go to church together, even date across district boundaries.

Just as the common sense arguments in favor of merger are well known, so are the objections. The political wrangling between school boards would require divine intervention (Cranberry board members can’t even share power with each other—another board in the room might make heads explode).

And in a region where so many people identify for life with their alma maters, the state supreme court might be needed to settle the mascot question. Cranberry oil? An armored oriole?

There’s no question that small local schools with strong community identity are great, a luxury that local generations have been fortunate to enjoy. But it’s time once again to ask the question—how much do you really want to pay for it?

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