Facilitator guides three boards of education through merger process

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

TRENTON -- In 1930, Nebraska had more than 11,000 school districts. Today there are 245. The boards of education from Hayes Center, Wauneta-Palisade, and Hitchcock County Unified School Districts met Monday evening in Trenton to discuss recommendations in an effort to keep those school districts alive.

Roger Hudson, from School District Organization Services, helped facilitate the meeting and told the board members, parents, teachers and administrators assembled that, "you have to give up something to get something."

School finance is based on student enrollment which continues to decline. Aggravating factors adding to the declining enrollments include the rising costs of school operations and the ongoing drought which puts the agricultural economy at risk.

Hitchcock County has about three years left in its unification agreement and the county cannot afford two high schools Hudson said, "unless you want to give money back to the state, and you can't afford that either."

Hudson said that five years ago Hayes Center schools looked like they were 10 years away from being broke.  However, due to steady enrollment numbers and the fact that Hayes Center qualifies as a very sparse school, they seem to be pretty solidly set for the next 10 years.

Being rated as a very sparse school gives the district an additional $2,000 per student in state aid. In order to qualify as very sparse, there must be fewer than 1/2 student per square mile and more than 15 miles between high school attendance centers on a paved road.  There must also be at least 450 square miles in a district. Hudson estimated that the school could receive an additional $1 million per year together by qualifying as very sparse.

Based on actual students who will graduate in the next five years and those that will enter kindergarten, the schools represented, which includes Dundy and Chase Counties, will lose an estimated 341 students enrolled in those schools by 2007.

One possible solution to keep the districts in tact would be to combine instruction through cooperative use of personnel and facilities.  This would mean arranging schedules of curriculums in such a way that two or more districts may utilize fewer professional staff. In other words, move teachers, rather than students. Also, reducing program offerings and services would reduce costs.

Another possible solution would be a unification, however, little is gained and the long-term commitment to high quality schools is at risk.

A merger would be another potential solution, Hudson said, "but you have to be willing to put tradition aside." A merger is one of the best ways to fulfill the educational responsibility of the community and school districts, but it usually results in the closing of some of the involved attendance centers in order to maximize the fiscal stability of a system. Hudson said that a merger is permanent but probably the best way to go.

Other possible solutions include changing the complete structure of the district or a levy override which buys time but is difficult to achieve in a severely challenged economy and may end in negative results. A levy override should only be considered to provide a time frame in which to make organizational decisions related to a longer term plan.

Hudson asked the group, "When do you get to the point when enough is enough?"

Senator Tom Baker said with the $673 million state budget deficit, he doubts much will be done to help schools in the form of state aid. He anticipates the governor will propose a freeze of state aid at last year's levels. However, the state legislature won't begin defining the budget until about April 10, by then, teacher contracts are in the works.

The recommendations proposed by Hudson would include determining the interest or commitments of the boards of education in participating in a joint study or planning activity. Committees should be appointed from participating boards of education to meet on a planned schedule for the purpose of planning a smooth transition into the future.

Hudson told the boards they should establish goals and set timelines as well as employ a facilitator.  A study needs to be conducted of the structural demographic data that projects the fiscal health of school districts in the four-county area and publish the data in the local media. Based on the data, plans should be developed for short term (2 year), intermediate (5 year) and long term (10 year) future of the school districts and publish those plans.

Another recommendation is to conduct hearings or "town hall" meetings to present the plan, its rationale and answer questions from the public, press and other interested parties.

"Put your information out there and let people tell you what they think," Hudson said.

All in all, Hudson said it is going to come down to a board to board decision as to what procedures are needed to implement plans on a predetermined schedule and modify or adjust the plans according to input, need or better ideas. He said, "excellent things can come out of meager circumstances if that's what you want."

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