Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Is School Consolidation Good Or Bad?

November 3, 1997

What is the social and financial impact of school consolidation? This is an important question for Great Plains communities that have declining populations. In 1930, there were more than 130,000 school districts in the United States. By 1990, this number had been reduced to 15,500.

The debate over school consolidations is between two groups of people. One group believes that consolidation leads to improved educational advantages for students and is more cost efficient. Other people question the improvement of education, advocate local control, and worry about the financial and social impact of a school loss.

The pressures for consolidation are the result of several factors that have developed over the last 30 years. They include declining enrollment, increased mill levies, inflation, compliance with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), state accreditation requirements, and mandated policies without supplemental funding to enable compliance with mandates.

Besides money and quality of education, another big reason why community schools consider consolidation is because they can no longer field a football team. This leads to co-oping for sports and other extracurricular activities. Schools share resources such as teachers and books. Schools that have a history of co-oping see this as a vital first step in their eventual consolidation.

Research scientist Randall Sell, Ag Economics Professor F. Larry Leistriz and research assistant JoAnn Thompson from the Department of Agricultural Economics at North Dakota State University studied this question.

Sell and his colleagues compared four pairs of North Dakota communities. They looked at key factors in the communities to learn the impact of consolidation on the community that gained students as well as the communities that lost students. The school closures took place between 1987 and 1993. For the schools that closed, total enrollment in the last year of operation ranged from 47 to 97 students. Here are their main findings.

  • There was consistent agreement in all eight communities that the students were better off socially and academically. The students themselves liked the new potential for friendships and the greater educational opportunities.

Almost from day one of the consolidation, the children mixed together comfortably. Smaller schools could not sustain sports teams, extracurricular activities, special classes, foreign languages, and higher end math and science classes. The only downside from the student standpoint was the increased time in bussing.

  • Both the host and vacated communities continued to decline in retail sales and number of businesses. The impact was greater in vacated communities because of the loss of school related businesses - grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.

The loss of a school didn't create a domino effect among existing businesses because most of the loss of local businesses and community services had already happened before consolidation. Most community members agreed that the school closing didn’t kill the community, "A community exists first and dies first."

  • In some vacated communities there was a decline in community participation with residents becoming less involved. In a few instances disagreements between individuals led to a decline in participation. However, in one consolidation, the strong local leadership from the vacated community re-energized the host community with its dynamic participation.

School loss was a loss of entertainment in the vacated communities. Without school activities, there were fewer reasons for the older population to come to town. Despite these factors, there was not an overall difference in participation in community organizations or the number of hours in volunteering between the host and vacated communities.

  • There was no difference between residents of the host communities and the vacated communities on their satisfaction with the quality of life before the consolidation. After consolidation, the percentage of members of the vacated communities "very satisfied" with their community dropped from 60 percent to 39 percent. The host community members experienced only a slight drop in satisfaction.

Community members made the following recommendations to other communities considering consolidation.

1. Communicate facts to all patrons.

2. Co-op first and share resources before a school closing

3. Establish a fact-finding committee, with student representation, to make a recommendation to the school board. The committee should have representation of parents with school age children, retired patrons, local business owners and representatives from the school.

4. Conduct weekly public meetings with professional moderators to control discussion.

5. Allow students to visit adjoining districts.

6. Put student welfare first.

According to Sell and his associates, school consolidations take their toll on retail sales, community participation and satisfaction of life in rural communities. School closing is just another step in a larger picture of declining population and a shrinking economic base for small rural communities in the Great Plains.

Fighting a consolidation will not stop the downward trend. In fact, most losses for the community had already taken place prior to the school closure. The answers are more in the area of rural economic development than in retaining the role of the school as a hub of community life.

They also found a ringing endorsement of consolidations. Despite all the negative and positive impacts, when student welfare was the main criteria, all affected community members agreed that the result was good.