The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)
August 7, 2008
The Hyphen School District
Actually, that’s an incomplete list. In fact, almost every school district is a consolidated school district regardless of its name. The one-room schoolhouses that dotted the landscape were either closed or consolidated into other school districts through the 1960s. The buildings are still there in many cases, but they’ve been converted into houses or other uses. By state law, every piece of property must be part of a school district, and school districts only grow in size by annexation — which is difficult given that no school district wants to shrink and thus lose land value — or by merging with another school district. That’s how you get the odd cases of, for instance, my former house that was in the City of Appleton and the Menasha school district.
The consolidation question is coming up again given the pickle many school districts find themselves in with the state’s school district budget revenue caps. The Ripon Commonwealth Press reports that the Markesan School District is proposing joining with adjacent school districts to create a new seventh- through 12th-grade unified school district. Markesan is surrounded by nine other school districts — going around the compass, Green Lake, Ripon, Rosendale–Brandon, Waupun, Randolph, Cambria–Friesland, Pardeeville Area, Montello and Princeton — and though larger school districts such as Ripon or Waupun are not likely to be interested, school districts of Markesan's size, such as Green Lake or Princeton, might be.
This is a good time to open the school district consolidation discussion. Consolidating school districts does not have to mean closing the doors of school buildings, although the Markesan proposal would create one larger high school out of, optimally, three smaller high schools. (Combining Green Lake, Markesan and Princeton would create a high school of 541 students, about the same size as Ripon.) The number one reason to consolidate is administrative savings — one school district administrator, one bus company, one food service operation, one maintenance operation, and so on. The second reason is the opportunity to expand program choices to students, programs that one small district might not be able to afford, but a larger district could.
There are a number of places within Northeast Wisconsin where school district consolidation should have already taken place. Now that we have modern roads, bridges and communication methods, there is no earthly reason for the city of De Pere to have two school districts for the east and west sides of the city, particularly when the school districts have the state's 76th highest and 47th highest school mil rates, 16.1 percent and 20.6 percent higher than the state average, respectively, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. The Markesan (90th highest mil rate) and Green Lake (395th, thanks to all that expensive lakefront property) school districts have been jockeying around a property transfer, when what they should be discussing is merging the school districts, as they now may be discussing. (The Commonwealth Press story, which is not available online, contained no comments from Green Lake School Board members, who were at a joint meeting with their Markesan counterparts.)
Consolidation is the farthest step, but it's not the only option. Randolph and Cambria–Friesland have been near merged for years, with many shared programs, including athletic teams; the same is the case with three school districts in southwest Wisconsin, Cuba City, Southwestern and Benton. After the Bloomington and West Grant school districts merged and then demerged acrimoniously in the 1950s, cooler heads prevailed 40 years later, and the River Ridge School District was created. (It is not far from northwest Illinois' River Ridge School District, but given both districts' proximity to the Mississippi River, the names are appropriate. At some point, perhaps the two River Ridges will play each other in sports.)
One point of resistance to merger is the loss of civic identity that happens when a community loses its high school, which is a big deal in small-town Wisconsin. Even though school property tax rates aren't at the $30 per $1,000 assessed valuation level anymore, as they were in some rural school districts in the late 1980s, one wonders how long civic pride can hold off economic realities. It's better for school districts to arrange mergers on their own terms than to simply close, as the former Ondossagon school district in northern Wisconsin did earlier this decade and as the Florence School District almost did in 2005.
State law might have to be massaged to ease budget controls for merged districts for a set period of time to encourage mergers, as has happened in the past. (State aid already has hold-harmless provisions for merging districts, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.) And obviously there are geographic limits to which school districts can merge. But school districts having financial issues need to take the merger option more seriously today, if for no other reason than to ease the financial burdens of those paying for our state's schools.