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Small school systems dispute consolidation report

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School officials across Indiana are taking issue with a report by Ball State researchers that suggests mergers of smaller districts are inevitable.

The policy brief by the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research found that dwindling enrollment and rising education costs could force small schools to join forces to reduce overhead.

The idea of school consolidation has been floated for years, with few takers. Several academic studies over the past decade have recommended it, and some districts have gone as far as initiating talks before deciding against a merger. Legislation introduced several years ago to force consolidation of schools with fewer than 1,000 students "just fell flat on its face," said Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson.

"There may be places where it makes sense, but I think that's up to the communities to decide for themselves," Austin told The Herald-Bulletin.

Daleville Community Schools Superintendent Paul Garrison said his district held focus groups, joint special school board meetings and public hearings over a year when discussing consolidation with Cowan Community Schools. Both districts have fewer than 1,000 students enrolled.

They ultimately decided against a merger.

"The truth is a lot of school districts don't want to lose their autonomy," Garrison said.

Michael Hicks, director of the Ball State center, said school and community leaders might have no alternative in the future.

"Many of Indiana's school districts are facing dwindling enrollment at a time when costs of providing a quality education are increasing," Hicks said. "At some point, we are going to have to look at ways to reduce the school districts' overhead while maintaining the ability to provide quality education in each community."

More than half of Indiana's 291 school districts had enrollment of less than 2,000 students, the Ball State researchers found. More than three-fourths of those had seen enrollment drop by at least 100 students between 2006 and 2012.

Many school leaders say they've already cut costs and participate in purchasing consortiums to save money, and they question whether consolidation would bring the savings the report suggests.

"I don't think there's that much money to be saved in the kind of consolidation that you're talking about," said Bobby Fields, superintendent of Frankton-Lapel schools, which consolidated in 1972.

"The only thing that you would save if you consolidate would be a few personnel, that would really be about it," Fields said.

John Trout, superintendent of the Madison-Grant United School Corporation, said the only way to achieve significant savings under consolidation is to close schools. That means "one community is going to have to make a significant sacrifice to join another," he said.

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