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Tom Alsbury, College of Education, (515) 294-5785
Cathy Curtis, College of Education, (515) 294-8175
Kevin Brown, News Service, (515) 294-8986


AMES, Iowa -- A new study of nine merged school districts across the nation by an Iowa State University researcher suggests that mergers are good for students but bad for the vitality of towns left with no school building.

Thomas Alsbury, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies, said he and two colleagues interviewed school district officials undergoing mergers from 1994 to present. Districts studied were in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Maine and Oregon.

The positive results for merged districts included increased diversity (both socio-economic and/or ethnic); increased funding, staffing and teaching flexibility; expanded programs targeted to special needs children, talented and gifted students and student support such as counseling programs and teacher aides; and improved educational quality and content.

Negative impacts of merging included the loss of one school board and the perceived loss or diminished influence felt by the merging community, a lingering sense of animosity from the community with a closed school, an economic "death blow" to the community losing its school with an exodus of residents and businesses, the loss of administrative positions -- but not of teachers -- in the closed district, and nearly inevitable superintendent turnover within two years in the new merged district.

Alsbury said the study resulted in several recommendations that can provide a smoother, more positive transition for everyone. Merged districts should:
  • Develop a new, united identity. "Superintendents indicated the importance of helping eliminate the perception of favoritism or disenfranchising by changing the name of the new district to include both community names, creating a new sports and school mascot, and redesigning district seals, logos, letterhead and signs," said Alsbury.

  • Focus on the value of all communities. "Because the merging district may constitute a remote location with a small population, superintendents need to fight the tendency to conduct business as usual," said Alsbury. "Superintendents need to make it a point to be visible, participatory and involved in all merged communities."

  • Plan for superintendent turnover. "Merger superintendents were rarely trusted by the sending district," said Alsbury. "Existing superintendents could not shed the obligatory merger baggage and community unity generally was unattainable without a new outside superintendent."

  • Work to unify students. "The ability to unify middle and high school students in particular is key," said Alsbury.

  • Start mergers early or in phases, where possible. "In many districts, a sharing of sports programs preceded a school merger," said Alsbury. "This allowed time to build community relationships and to develop familiarity for all involved."

  • Compromise to help lessen the closing district's loss of town identity. "One successful example was a merged district that maintained the closed school's athletic fields and played homes games there to help retain community pride and identity," said Alsbury.

  • Provide strong leadership. "Mergers are not generally the result of a popular vote," said Alsbury. "Successful mergers require a focus on leadership, flexibility and creativity."
States also can help merged districts unify by providing incentive funds or programs. These funds can be used for early retirement incentives, new construction or remodeling, bus contract changes, etc. In many cases, Alsbury said, such funding assistance lasts up to three years in cases of successful mergers. Also, state flexibility in looking at other merger incentives -- such as creative short-term taxing options or short-term per-pupil hikes in state funding -- also help finance smooth merger transitions.

"When all citizens in a community (those with and without children in school) benefit financially from a merger, broad support was evidenced with very little opposition," Alsbury said.

Of the nine districts studied, seven were from small school districts (three or fewer schools buildings), one from a medium district (seven schools) and one from a large district (more than seven schools). Seven of the mergers occurred in the 1990s; the other two were in 2000 and 2002.

Four of the merged districts closed schools in at least one community. In the remaining districts, no schools were eliminated. Two districts merged because of state mandates while seven were voluntary -- sparked by a declining economy, population and enrollment.


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