There is is no financial, educational or social benefit to school district consolidation, and the Utah State Board of Education should drop consolidation plans, rural school superintendents say.
"Consolidation has been debated long enough," Juab Superintendent Kirk Wright told board members at a budget hearing. "It is time to put this idea to rest."Fred H. C. Openshaw, superintendent of the Tintic School District, said rural areas are continually losing teachers because they fear their jobs may be eliminated through consolidation.
"You have adequate information to stop what is a severe hampering to rural education," Openshaw said. "Rural students should have the same right to stable, strong educational programs and staffs as other areas."
Board members held a public hearing Tuesday at Provo High School to gather comments for the budget they will present to the Legislature in January. Only a handful of candidates for the Legislature and one incumbent state senator were present during the hearing. Notably absent were other incumbent elected officials and representatives of the tax protest movement, both of whom may play a vital role in the budget schools are handed next year.
Rural and urban school districts share many of the same problems, most agreed, but the rural superintendents identified some problems that are unique to their areas and often don't receive adequate consideration.
Chief among those problems are dwindling student enrollments, the effects of both mandated and eliminated programs and the inherent difficulties of providing for rural districts that often are spread over large areas.
Some superintendents pointed out structuring problems with some education funding programs, while others described the problems they are facing with the reduction of or possible elimination of other programs.
Wright said a shifting population in his area has caused serious budget and administration concerns. While enrollment at the elementary level has dropped, enrollment at the secondary level has remained constant. Lower overall student enrollment has resulted in less supplementary funding from the Necessarily Existent Small School program, negatively affecting the quality of education in the upper grades.
Nebo Superintendent J. Wayne Nelson requested that the Legislature retain a controversial revenue equalization program that has particularly benefited rural districts.
Last year, the Legislature voted to retain the equalization program for the 1988-89 school year, and then to eliminate it in the 1989-90 school year. That has rural school districts worried.
The program transferred two mill levys from the capital outlay budget to the maintenance and operation budget, in which funds are equally dispersed among districts. Thus larger, wealthier districts have seen their tax revenues injected into smaller, poorer districts.
Nelson asked that if the program is dropped, the Legislature should increase local assessment for the minimum school fund by two mills to keep funding level.
Openshaw expressed appreciation for the support his rural area has received in the past from the State Office of Education and said it was "unfortunate that members of the state office are pounded on."
Openshaw said rural Utah is hurting because of a reduction in support staff on the state level, and that rural districts need to have strengthened regional service centers.
"You have the opportunity to provide a greater education to rural students at a lower cost" through such support, said Openshaw.
Those comments were echoed by Wasatch Superintendent Henry E. Jolley.
"The State Board of Education's specialists and personnel provide valuable programs and services, particularly to rural districts that don't have large support staffs," Jolley said.