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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

Ohio chooses path of smaller districts, stronger bonds

BY VANESSA WINANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Katie Wendt, a second-grade teacher in Vanlue, works with Gage Parker, 8. Vanlue's superintendent said small schools are costlier to run on a per-pupil basis than bigger school districts. Katie Wendt, a second-grade teacher in Vanlue, works with Gage Parker, 8. Vanlue's superintendent said small schools are costlier to run on a per-pupil basis than bigger school districts.
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VANLUE, Ohio - Stenciled above the front door on the inside of Vanlue's single school building is a simple instruction: "Do the right thing." Those four words are the last thing the district's staff and 319 students see before they rejoin the world after a day in the classroom.

But what is the right thing, when it comes to running a school system? Faced with that question, Timothy Kruse, Vanlue's superintendent, has to shrug.

He has taught in the Columbus city schools, the second largest district in Ohio, as well as in Lima and Bluffton, and since 2000 he has headed one of the state's smallest systems: Vanlue, located just east of Findlay about 50 miles south of Toledo.

"The great disadvantage is small schools are costly; the cost per pupil is high," he said, seated at his tidy metal desk, a Norman Rockwell print hanging on the wall behind him. "It's cheaper to run a big school."

But a smaller school has its advantages too, he said. The staff can get to know not just the students, but their families. As years pass, they can work together as students progress through the system, giving the children a safety net unattainable in a larger setting.

Those smaller systems are a way of life throughout much of northwest Ohio.

But as the levy failures in the November election showed, many of these small school districts face funding uncertainties. Some have cut staff and programs. Some, including Vanlue, intend to return to the voters next year and ask for money - again.

It's a system that's frustrating for practically everyone involved with it. It begs the question: Is this any way to run the system that shapes the future for Ohio's children?

A map of Ohio's school districts looks a lot like the bedcovers our great-grandmothers referred to as "crazy quilts": no order, no pattern, just blocks sewn randomly together.

The system is not unique to the Buckeye State's 600-plus school districts; Michigan andPennsylvania have similar set-ups with hundreds of districts each. But Ohio's other neighbors have tried another way: More than one third of Indiana's 92 counties have just one or two districts per county, while West Virginia and Kentucky have school districts that are mostly or completely countywide.

Nationally, a wave of school district mergers occurred after World War II, said Michael Pons of the National Education Association. In 1945, the United States had about 130,000 districts. Today, the number is about 15,000, he said. Despite the high number of districts currently in Ohio, the state was among those that lost many of them in the postwar push for efficiency. In the mid 1950s, a state law compelled districts without high schools to join districts that did, and required small high schools to merge with larger ones.

Indiana was another state that lost districts, and it took the drive much further than Ohio. A 1959 state law mandated that many school districts consolidate, said Jeff Zaring, administrator of the state's department of education. "Consolidation was needed to improve opportunities and operational efficiencies," he said. "It was a better use of taxpayer money."

Over the next decade or so, the state's 1,000 districts dropped to around 300, Mr. Zaring said. Since then, a few more mergers have put the number just below 300.

Not everyone was happy about the changes. "It was tough for some communities to give up their school and basketball team," Mr. Zaring said.

And that is exactly what holds back many communities in Ohio. The ardent loyalty people have for their local schools, Mr. Kruse said, means consolidation is often far from folks' minds when they consider cost-cutting measures.

"In Ohio, small schools in small towns have been linked so long that no one wants to give that up," Mr. Kruse said. "By and large, they don't want their schools to consolidate."

The issue, he added, is not on the table in Vanlue, which is considering other cost-cutting measures beyond those taken since the failure of a levy in November.

The savings gained by consolidation through reductions in superintendents' salaries and cuts of other administrative staff can be substantial.

In Hancock County, home to Vanlue and seven other school districts, most recent numbers show there are a little more than 11,000 students in 32 schools. The eight districts employ 38 administrators. The administrative cost per student ranges from $842 in Findlay City Schools to $1,441 at Vanlue in the 2003-04 school year.

Contrast that with Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. in south-central Indiana. The massive district - swollen by a series of consolidations - takes in almost all of Bartholomew County. The district has 10,629 students in 16 schools, but has only five district administrators. Its administrative cost per student was $682 in the 2000-01 school year, the latest year figures were available.

But the savings gained through consolidations come with a cost.

"What the taxpayer has to decide is, is it worth it?" Mr. Kruse said.

The issue, the NEA's Mr. Pons said, generally comes down to "economic practicality" vs. manageability and responsiveness. For small districts, he added, schools also serve as a focus of community activities, especially athletics: "Everyone goes to games on Friday night."

That's certainly true in Vanlue.

"This school is the focal point of this little town," Mr. Kruse said. "If this school somehow doesn't exist, it would be the death of this little town."

Ditto for the town of Pioneer in Williams County. When the North Central school board cut sports last month to save money after a November levy failure, students there wondered how they would fill their time without basketball games and the usual postgame wrap-up at a local restaurant.

"That's what the town comes out for: Friday and Saturday night basketball," said Kelsie Oyer, a senior at North Central High School who plays basketball.

After a public outcry, the board reinstated winter sports, but still faces financial difficulties. North Central will try again in February to get a 7.9-mill, five-year emergency levy passed.

While other states continue to choose consolidation - Nebraska and Arkansas recently mandated such mergers - in Ohio it is viewed as a fate to avoid.

A few years ago, said Huron City schools superintendent Frederick Fox, the Vermilion district's financial situation became so dire the state stepped in and prepared a report on how to divide the district among its neighbors. When the report became public, voters passed a levy to save their schools.

Although the Huron city schools are $1 million in debt, consolidation is not on the table. At least not yet, Mr. Fox said. The district will put another levy on the ballot next spring. Given that the last levy failed by a 6 percent margin, he has high hopes for the next one.

But he also knows anything can happen.

"Eventually the community will support the school system, or they will break up the school system," Mr. Fox said. "A community will always determine the level of the education they want their kids to get."

So what is the right thing for Ohio's schools? Hardly anyone comes out in favor of consolidating districts, even if it means saving money.

"Consolidation is always a controversial topic," noted Rick Dickinson, general counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association.

Even Indiana's Mr. Zaring acknowledges it wasn't easy.

"There were compromises that had to be made. It's a blow to a town to lose its school."

Contact Vanessa Winans at:

vwinans@theblade.com

or 419-724-6168.



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