EDITORIAL: How big should a merger be?

EVER WONDER WHY so many school districts in this state have the word “central” in their full name, as in the Chatham Central School District, Ichabod Crane Central, Taconic Hills Central, New Lebanon Central… etc.?

People who attended the one- and two-room school houses that were part of the fabric of so many rural communities know why. Kids learned their ABCs in these small schools, and then either commuted to a bigger settlement that had a high school or they went to work full time. Here and there in places like Copake and Canaan, you can still see the old schools, now vacant or used for other purposes.

After World War II and into the early 1950s, the state Board of Regents pressed for one-room school districts to join larger districts that could provide an elementary-through-high-school education for all of the state’s children, or at least those not living with a disability. These central school districts were better able to prepare new generations for the challenges facing the world’s mightiest nation. And besides, the postwar baby boom didn’t leave communities much choice; we needed more schools because there were more kids than ever before.

Now the state has once again begun to push for consolidation by offering incentives for districts to merge. Ichabod Crane in and around Kinderhook and the Schodack Central School District in southern Rensselaer County are actively exploring the details of a merger. Chatham and New Lebanon have discussed the prospect too, though as of this week the prospects for that marriage may have dimmed substantially.

The new emphasis on mergers and consolidation reflects the priorities of a different era. We don’t hear much at the state and local level about expanding educational opportunities or broadening the curriculum. The population has hardly grown at all here in Columbia County over the past decade, and we continue to rank as one of the oldest counties in the state, based on the average age of our residents. Our school districts expect no growth or a drop in total enrollment over the years ahead.

The discussion of newly configured school districts isn’t driven by the great aspirations of the past; it chugs ahead because we’re realizing that if we don’t manage the contraction of education, the biggest industry in the county, most of us will go broke or have to move somewhere else.

To its credit the state has encouraged local districts to come up with their own solutions. That’s better than the alternative, which could involve even more edicts from Albany on how we all should do things the same way. But as local districts here are discovering, there are limits to what mergers can accomplish, and if school officials and voters aren’t careful, mergers with the wrong partners could end up costing taxpayers more than they would pay if the districts remained autonomous.

The region has had some successes in creating new approaches to educating our kids. Tech Valley High School seems to be the prime example. And while variations on its theme aren’t the best model for all our kids, we don’t have that many children in public school countywide and the type of thinking that led to Tech Valley could serve us well.

Too often small enrollment is viewed as a problem. Why not think of it instead as an advantage? This county has some outstanding facilities–just think of all the renovations and expansions our tax dollars have supported over the last decade or so. In these lean times, there’s no good reason to restrict those resources to the students of a single district.

We may think of ourselves as confined by historical boundary lines, but those borders might as well have been drawn in the Dark Ages for all the relevance they have to our educational needs. Would we pay more if we had only one school district in the county? Would education suffer? Or would abandoning old divisions free us to provide more opportunities at less cost?

The officials exploring two-district mergers deserve praise and support for their efforts. What they learn from their talks will be instructive to everyone who cares about the public education system. But this is tinkering around the edges, and it poses problems of its own. Thinking too small could produce a few successful schools that divert resources that the rest of our children can’t afford to do without.

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