Although legislators anticipate more funding for Idaho's public schools in the next fiscal year, there may be fewer schools to fund.

Consolidating smaller school districts - an idea that stirs the passion of rural opponents - is an issue sure to surface during the 1989 session."It's going to be on the front burner," says House Speaker Tom Boyd, R-Genesee.

It's also an issue that has brought legislators plenty of heat and created a rift between rural and urban schools. Each group claims advantages: Larger schools say they can offer students more diverse courses; smaller schools say they can give students more individual attention.

Previous legislation has unsuccessfully focused on consolidation as a cost-saving measure. Opponents have more or less defused that argument. This year, however, legislators say they'll focus on whether consolidation is a way to offer students stronger overall education.

"Consolidation isn't going to save money. It's going to redirect money into more efficient units," says Senate Minority Floor Leader Bruce Sweeney, D-Lewiston. He serves on the Education Committee.

Under Idaho's public education funding formula, smaller districts receive more money per student than do larger districts.

For example, the Pocatello School District spends $1,962 per student, based on average daily attendance figures. That amount ranks 109th out of 116 Idaho school districts. The North Gem (Bancroft) school district ranks 29th, spending $3,211 per student.

The state average is $2,473. Elk River, with an average enrollment of 31 students, tops state per-student spending at $11,818. Worley is next at $6,472.

Each year legislators hear complaints from the larger districts that their allocation isn't enough to provide a sound education. Legislators also are concerned about the cost of keeping smaller schools open.

"Living in a very small district, I keep right up with that," said Boyd, who spent 13 years on the Genesee School Board before election to the Legislature in 1976. He admits he favors smaller schools.

"I don't try to hide it," he said, chuckling. But he also wants the best statewide system possible.

"I don't think the Legislature can force consolidation," he said. "I think that would be wrong. . . . It has to boil down to what would be best for the students."

Boyd's opinion seems to be the consensus.

Sen. Jerry Thorne, R-Nampa, chairman of the Education Committee, said recently there is "absolutely no reason to consolidate" unless the change increases education quality and saves money.

"If neither of those can be achieved, then there's no sense in doing it," he said.

Another Education Committee member, Sen. Dennis Hansen, R-Soda Springs, said, "I feel that small schools should have the right to decide if they want to consolidate.

"I'm not ever going to vote for forced consolidation. . . . That's a community issue."

Sweeney agrees, but in a roundabout way.

He said legislators need to adequately fund isolated small districts, such as Challis and Salmon, that can't feasibly consolidate because of their distance from other schools.

Consolidation should be discussed, he said, in rural areas containing several schools. For example, the Grace, Soda Springs and North Gem schools could merge.

A new, centrally located school then could be built to avoid regional bickering. Hansen said legislators will review incentive options to encourage such moves. The state could pay the interest on new school buildings.

Small-town residents complain that closing their schools would take away towns' identities. Athletic events unify rural communities, they say.

But Sweeney, who agreed that schools are important to a town's identity, said the rural community decline began before any discussion of school consolidation. He said rural towns that used to have clothing and hardware stores don't anymore, because residents "drove past them and to a shopping mall somewhere."