Business leaders want school districts to consolidate. That might not be so easy.

A classroom at Eminence Community Schools goes unused, unneeded due to declining enrollment. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

Key Points
  • The Chamber of Commerce wants state lawmakers to provide incentives to encourage school districts with fewer than 2,000 students to consolidate.
  • More than half of Indiana schools contain fewer than 2,000 students.
  • Some critics say consolidation contradicts Indiana’s pro-education choice policies.

DUGGER, Ind. — A charter school system just south of Terre Haute may serve as a cautionary tale to other school districts that try to consolidate. 

Back in 2013, the cash-strapped Northeast School Corporation had to make what the superintendent called a “drastic decision,” voting to close a pair of schools amid declining enrollment.

Rather than send their children to the other schools in the district, members of the community opened a charter school system at the site and named it Dugger Union Community Schools, buying the campus off of Northeast School Corporation for $1.

As a result, the traditional public corporations’ enrollment was cut in almost half over the course of a decade, dipping under 800. The dilemma the district was trying to address — limited state funds caused by declining enrollment —  wasn't solved by the attempt to consolidate.

As part of its long term economic development plan, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, an influential business advocacy group, is asking the General Assembly to encourage the consolidation of school districts with fewer than 2,000 students. The chamber’s leadership sees cutting the number of small districts in half as a way to up educational attainment in a state that struggles with declining college-going rates, as well as to ease the population decline in some small communities.

It also could help school districts struggling under the financial weight of declining enrollment make their money go further, in a state where public money follows the students. 

But, Dugger Union serves as a test case on why any sort of school consolidation — whether it’s individual schools or the combination of districts — is such a challenging goal. It’s often an unpopular move in small towns whose identities revolve around the schools and their athletic teams. Plus, Indiana’s pro-charter climate can make it difficult to reduce the number of schools in operation.

“You lose your school, you lose your town,” Dugger Union Community School Corporation board member Carri Howard told State Affairs during an early September visit. “It’s the cornerstone of your town.”

Carri Howard, Dugger Union Community School Corporation board member, poses for a picture. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

For more than 15 years various government leaders and groups have tried to encourage small school districts to consolidate with little luck, pointing to studies showing that larger school districts are typically more efficient. It’s an issue that impacts large portions of the state. In fact, more than 160 traditional public school corporations — about half of the states’ total — have fewer than 2,000 students. 

The chamber sees consolidation as a way to better Indiana’s educational system. But as is often the case in state government, what may seem like a simple policy change would be far more complex.

“A student’s academic achievement and their economic achievement,” said Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kevin Brinegar, “should not be limited by where they happen to live and the size of the school district that they attend.”

Educational disparities

Are large school districts better? The answer to that question likely depends on who you ask. 

A 2017 Ball State study commissioned by the chamber found that school corporation size impacted nearly every measure of student performance studied. Corporations with fewer than 2,000 students generally performed worse on SATs, passed Advance Placement tests at a lower rate, had a lower ISTEP passage rate and scored worse on most end of course assessments. 

Some of the differences in educational attainment may stem from a difference in course offerings. A higher percentage of students, for example, are enrolled in AP classes in larger school districts. 

“How can you get a kid interested in science, technology careers and be eligible to be admitted to Purdue or Rose-Hulman or IU or Ball State or whatever if they don’t have the opportunity to take those classes because their high school is too small?” Brinegar asked.

(Design: Brittney Phan)

A separate 2014 Ball State study found that small school corporations could lower the cost of educating students by consolidating with other small districts. 

Michael Hicks, a Ball State economics professor and one of the study’s authors, said larger districts have to spend less of their state appropriated dollars per pupil on overhead costs outside of the classroom. 

“There are a number of school corporations that the writing's on the wall for many of them,” said Hicks, who also writes a weekly column that appears in State Affairs Pro Indiana. “Most rural schools in Indiana are either going to have to face consolidating or raising their own [money] through referendums.”

Of the state’s 20 smallest traditional public school districts, 18 have lost enrollment since 2013, in some cases losing hundreds of students. And Indiana lawmakers fund students, not schools. For example, Eminence Community Schools, located in a rural portion of Morgan County, went from 444 students in 2013 to 306 this most recent school year. 

It’s now the third smallest traditional public school district in the state. The proof: Over the last century the district has had to add onto the school building in phases, but now the top floor of the junior high building is blocked off, no longer needed.

Wes Hammond, Eminence’s superintendent, has a wishlist of improvements he’d like to make to the school campus, but he’s also quick to point out the benefits of a smaller district. 

Everyone knows everyone. It’s the type of place where the sole physical education teacher follows the students from kindergarten to 12th grade. The type of place where the superintendent includes only his direct email on every newsletter. If you have a complaint, you’re going straight to the top. Hammond is also the faculty member helping with afternoon parent pickup. 

Educating students just takes more creativity in a smaller district, Hammond said. The district still offers dual credit options in order to give students credit for college courses while in high school, but doesn’t offer any AP classes. Likewise, sometimes Eminence has to offer primarily virtual instruction, like the school does for Spanish. 

“We make every dollar count,” Hammond said. “Because the kids here need an education just as bad as the kids do anywhere else.”

Eminence Community Schools, which sit in a rural part of Morgan County, is now the third smallest traditional public school district in the state with 306 students. (Credit: Kaitlin Lange)

This most recent school year, the district boasted a 95.5% passage rate of the state’s third grade reading comprehension test, an increase year over year and higher than the state average. 

Hammond and other leaders of small school districts disagree with the narrative that small districts don’t produce as good of a “product.”

Donnie Bowsman, superintendent of 522-student Randolph Southern School Corporation, pointed to his own Ph.D. dissertation which he says found no significant difference between small and large school corporations on the ISTEP, graduation rates or A-F letter grades in a random sample of both small and large districts. He also found higher IREAD scores and lower tax rates in small school districts rather than large districts. 

Bowsman’s county is often used as an illustration of what some critics see as an overabundance of school corporations in the state.  In 24,000-person Randolph County, there are five school districts. All but one have fewer than 2,000 students. 

But, Bowsman said talks of consolidation have gone nowhere. More than a decade ago, the vote to consolidate Randolph Southern School Corporation and nearby Union School Corporation failed after intense public pushback, he said. 

“It's easy to say, ‘Well, we could save a lot of money by consolidating the small schools into one.’ Really? Tell me how,” said Bowsman, who is also the president of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association. “Show me how because I've been living this life for 13 years, and I can tell you right now, there's a lot more to it than what you think.”

Even if larger school districts lead to better academic results, Christopher Lagoni, executive director of Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association, warned that some parents just don’t want to subject their children to longer bus rides in order to attend a school on the opposite side of a county. 

"It's just not always possible over population, space, time and travel distances,” Lagoni said. 

Indiana’s pro-education choice climate

The argument for consolidation is complicated by Indiana’s other education policy choices centered around more education choice, not less. 

This past legislative session, lawmakers expanded the school choice voucher program so that a family of four making up to $220,000 per year can qualify for state money to send their child to any school they want, including private schools.

Likewise, the state increased its spending on charter schools, and in some counties required traditional public schools to share future property tax increases with charter schools. 

The General Assembly also clarified what’s known as the “$1 law” that enabled the Dugger Union charter to purchase the closed school building for almost nothing. Moving forward it could be even easier for charters to acquire traditional public school buildings because the Indiana Department of Education can now require school districts with significant declines in enrollment to sell schools that are operating under capacity. 

Lagoni said it’s a policy that encourages more schools, not fewer. 

“If the Indiana General Assembly goes down the path and says we want school consolidation, aren't they really saying in one part of the state we want to take away parent choice, while they totally want to increase parent choice in other parts of the state?” Lagoni said. “That doesn't seem equal and fair.”

Hicks, for his part, said charter schools often have smaller overhead costs regardless of size, due in part to not having to provide transportation.

If history is any guide, encouraging schools to consolidate won’t be easy. Some communities still remember the School Corporation Reorganization Act of 1959 which led to a dramatic decrease in the number of districts across Indiana. By 1968 the number of school corporations had dropped from 939 to 382.

In the 21st century, consolidation has been far more rare. 

Former Gov. Mitch Daniels was able to implement property tax caps, dramatically cut state government and launch what was at the time the country’s largest school voucher program. But even he, a governor known for pushing big  government reforms through the General Assembly, failed to require small districts to consolidate during his tenure.

 The 2007 Kernan-Shepard government streamlining report commissioned by Daniels, recommended districts smaller than 2,000 students consolidate. But legislation never passed out of committee, even after it was watered down to only target the smallest districts. 

In 2017 — the last time the Indiana Chamber of Commerce made a concentrated push to encourage consolidations — Indiana lawmakers approved a one-time financial incentive of $250 per student to schools who wished to consolidate. 

But even the promise of money wasn’t enough for districts to make the leap. No school district applied for a grant from the $5 million fund.

Proponents of consolidation point to counties with some populations and multiple school districts as a sign that more school districts should reorganize. (Design: Brittney Phan)

Lagoni said his association doesn’t have a problem with school consolidation — as long as it’s locally driven.

Some school districts have successfully reorganized regardless of any financial incentive. North Central Parke Community School Corporation in western Indiana was formed in 2013 from two different school districts. Years after the two districts consolidated, the board voted to close one high school and one middle school. 

But unlike in the Northeast School Corporation’s case, there was little pushback because students and staff were on board with increasing opportunities for their students, both academically and athletically, Dr. Tom Rohr, the former superintendent of the corporation, said.  It was getting challenging to field football teams and some advanced classes at times would contain just two or three students.

“Students and staff would stand up and say we want this to happen. This is going to be best for our kids,” Rohr said. “They kind of drowned out the naysayers who wanted to base everything on their memories rather than what reality was.”

Sure, there’s still challenges with long bus routes, but Rohr said he thinks a lot of counties would benefit from reorganizing their school districts. 

What’s next?

Ball State is conducting another study for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce on the topic, but with the study’s conclusion still months away, it could drop just before the 2024 legislative session. That would put it top of mind for state lawmakers as they’re crafting policy, giving the chamber more influence.

But finding an empathetic administration or lawmakers may be challenging. 

Indiana Secretary of Education Dr. Katie Jenner declined an interview request for this story and through a spokesperson did not say whether she thought more school districts should consolidate. 

Likewise Richmond Republican Sen. Jeff Raatz, chair of the Senate’s education committee, was not available for an interview and Indianapolis Republican Rep. Bob Behning, chair of the House Committee on Education, did not respond to interview requests through a spokesperson. 

“We're going to continue to push the message that you are disadvantaging the kids in your legislative districts by not moving forward,” Brinegar, head of the chamber, said during a media call in August.  “Literally every legislator we’ve talked to agrees that we have too many school districts. The question is, how do we get enough political will and momentum to get the General Assembly to do something about it?”

Senior investigative reporter Ryan Martin contributed to this story.

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