The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

November 27, 2010

School consolidation often tricky

LeCenter, Montgomery-Lonsdale exploring possible merger

After the school boards in the Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale districts informally agreed to move forward with discussions to consider consolidation this week, they are nearing a difficult community conversation.

It’s a conversation that has been taking place with varying levels of frequency throughout the last century as the number of school districts in the United States has declined by 90 percent since 1938. In Minnesota alone, the number of school districts has declined by more than 20 percent since 1990; and, in this area, a wave of consolidations took place in the mid-1990s that dissolved nearly 30 districts into just 11.

Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial survived one. So did Maple River. So, too, did Le Sueur-Henderson, Waterville-Elysian-Morristown, United South Central, Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton and others.

And now, Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale are beginning to broach the idea — and with a healthy respect for the difficult conversations ahead.

“We would not even consider this if we didn’t respect the kind of education in Le Center,” said Liz Krocak, chair of the Montgomery-Lonsdale School Board. “These are two strong districts with very strong support from parents.”

Those who have lived through them say the consolidation conversation is one that creates deep divisions, shifts loyalties and threatens identities. But they also say the conversations are about opportunity, achievement and what’s best for communities and kids.

Jim Bisel was principal of Minnesota Lake High School when it consolidated with what was then called the Mapleton-Amboy-Good Thunder School District in the fall of 1993. He remembers passionate feelings in the community that consolidating would all but eliminate the Lakers’ proud tradition and its “tremendous community support.”

But Bisel, who is now principal of Maple River East Elementary, also remembers that it quickly became evident that consolidation was the right decision.

“People know what they are going to lose,” said Bisel of a community’s initial reaction to consolidation. “But they don’t know yet what they will gain. ... I think what you have to do is ask yourself: ‘Could we be better?’”

And that’s precisely the question that brought Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale to the table.

The state’s budget deficit is well documented and leaders in both districts say they need to consider all options with no clear end to the deficits in sight. They agreed earlier this year that one of those options would be a study by the South Central Service Cooperative to determine the feasibility of joining the two districts, either through shared services or full consolidation.

SCSC consultant and former Mankato superintendent Ed Waltman is leading the study and, during Monday’s joint meeting between the two districts, presented the results gathered thus far: a thick packet full of information related to each school’s financial, educational and contractual data. The packet also included preliminary estimates on how consolidation might impact property taxes, staff contracts and course offerings.

During the meeting, Waltman reminded each district that consolidation is unlikely to produce any cost-savings in its first few years. Instead, he said the benefits are in maintaining — and even improving — educational quality and fiscal stability in the face of an uncertain future.

According to financial projections included in the SCSC study, both districts would have to reduce their budgets by a total of about $1 million apiece over the next five years under current funding scenarios.

Waltman said such cuts could be devastating because both districts already operate efficiently.

Montgomery-Lonsdale spends about $7,994 per pupil; Le Center spends about $8,765. Both amounts are significantly lower than the state average of $10,120.

“Both districts already offer a very good education at a very reasonable cost,” Waltman said.

Consolidation, however, would allow both districts to expand education programming and stabilize their budgets by leveraging economies of scale.

Both districts agreed during the joint meeting that class offerings could expand significantly. Matt Helgerson, Le Center co-superintendent and high school principal, mentioned his school’s “bare bones” English offerings could be greatly expanded with Montgomery-Lonsdale’s partnership.

Both districts could also expand student access to extra-curricular activities. Montgomery-Lonsdale would gain Le Center’s math team and one-act play; Le Center would gain Montgomery-Lonsdale’s speech and cross-country teams. Consolidation would also mean a new district that would rival St. Peter as the largest in the Minnesota River Conference with a potential enrollment of more than 1,800.

“These two districts have been operating very efficiently,” Helgerson said. “We are at the breaking point of what we do next.”

So, as the Le Center and Montgomery-Lonsdale school boards wrapped Monday’s joint meeting — both agreeing to make a formal decision by Jan. 15 on whether to pursue consolidation more intently — there was an unmistakable note of anxiety in the air.

“The whole purpose of this is directly related to what is best for kids,” Krocak said. “We’re trying to take charge of our destiny.”

When asked about the volume of data to consider and the weight of the decision, Helgerson said: “It’s overwhelming.”

As for those who have survived consolidation, they say it’s a matter of time.

Annette Rode was new to the Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial School District when it officially consolidated in 1991. The move followed three years of discussions between districts in Lake Crystal, Garden City, Rapidan and Vernon Center.

After the consolidation, school sites were eventually closed in the smaller communities. Feelings were hurt and Rode said it was evident that people felt their sense of school identity would be lost. She said the resulting bitterness was largely behind the district’s string of failed referendums in the early 2000s.

But, she said, time healed most wounds and the district’s enrollment has been among the few in the region to show gains in recent years.

In an effort to preserve history, Rode created a set of display cases inside LCWM’s secondary facility that showcases the school traditions of each community located in the district. The photos and mementos, she said, are a reminder of what was lost in an effort to gain something better.

“Our students have opportunities now they never would have had,” she said. “It was a long process. But just because we consolidated doesn’t mean we’ll forget who we were.”

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