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Advocate, opponent say decision should be made locally
PERRY COUNTY - All three of Perry County's school systems would be consolidated if one of the 27 recommendations from a commission on local government reform is adopted by state education or legislative officials.
"Reorganize school districts to achieve a minimum student population of 2,000," the commission urged in a 46-page Dec. 11 report.
Gov. Mitch Daniels appointed the commission last summer after hearing complaints about property-tax increases. Schools accounted for 54 percent of all property taxes collected, the commission noted in its report, citing 2006 figures from the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
The consolidation of any two of Perry County's school systems would leave all of them short of the 2,000 figure.
Preliminary state Education Department enrollment figures for the current school year show 1,607 students in the Tell City-Troy Township School Corp., 1,166 at Perry Central Community School Corp. and 280 in Cannelton City Schools.
Cannelton City Schools Corp.
"An optimal balance of cost efficiencies and student achievement is realized in school corporations with enrollment between 2,000 and 4,000 students," the commission reported. "Similarly, a compilation of research suggests that this balance typically is achieved at district enrollments of between 2,000 and 6,000. More than half of all school districts in Indiana have fewer than 2,000 students; 46 districts have fewer than 1,000."
In seeking one of three seats on the Cannelton School Board after voters in that city opted to convert it to an elected body, Gary Zellers advocated a consolidation of the county's school administrations, which might or might not have included consolidation of school buildings.
Resistance to consolidation is based on fears of losing community identity, he said in a written statement he provided to The News in advance of the 2006 election, but "very serious problems" in his city's school corporation made an examination of the issue necessary. "The Cannelton school system is declining to a point where we now rank as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state in nearly every key measure. That's an identity I don't think we can afford to maintain."
Zellers lost that election. Those who won seats expressed either direct opposition to consolidation or support of the city residents who opposed it.
"Three school systems in this county means a lot of duplication of effort," Zellers said Thursday, but he stressed that a reorganization could leave Cannelton's schools as they are.
The commission agreed.
"Indiana has too many school districts and administrators," they wrote, "but Indiana does not have too many schools. We recommend retaining geographically dispersed schools to allow districts to maintain optimal class sizes and serve local populations and needs."
If the recommendations become requirements from the state level, Cannelton should be guaranteed it could keep elementary and middle schools, Zellers said, "because those are excellent in Cannelton. But there are significant problems at the higher level."
If the county will have one school corporation, "the question is would there be a Cannelton, Tell City and Perry Central High School?" he said, suggesting that decision should be left to the people of Perry County.
"Part of my point when I was running for the school board was that Cannelton should be proactive rather than reactive," he added, "so we could better control our own destiny."
Mary Roberson, superintendent for Perry Central Community School, said Friday while the studies noted in the commission's report support larger schools, other studies have found the opposite. She also noted that many people perceive school administrations to be "top-heavy," but said Indiana and Perry County have very low numbers of central-office employees compared to other school systems nationally and statewide, respectively.
The commission's work does have value, however, Roberson said, noting, "I think the study is opening up conversations at the state level."
Some of the commission's recommendations, such as those urging consolidations of educational and administrative functions, are already in place locally, Roberson said. She pointed to shared vocational, alternative-school and purchasing programs, saying, for example, schools here buy supplies and equipment through statewide and southern-Indiana programs.
State school-board and school-superintendents associations have adopted the stance that any consolidations should come as a result of local decisions, not state mandates, Roberson said. The Perry Central School Board's stance has always been, she added, "that we are open to conversation" about consolidation. "We don't feel it's best, but we are open to dialogue."
"It's easy to put a study on paper and make broad generalizations on what works in different communities," Roberson said, "but ultimately it should be the decision of the residents of Perry County on what works best for Perry County."
Any change that might occur should be based on the effect it will have on the youngsters involved, Roberson feels. While there will be advantages and disadvantages in any centralization, whether it would be better or worse "depends on how we handle it," she said. "Whatever happens, we will do our best for the students."
A Dec. 29 Associated Press report noted legislators are hesitant to tackle most of the recommendations during the short session of the General Assembly, which will open Tuesday and close March 14.
Other commission recommendations, such as the elimination or consolidation of some county-government offices, will be reported in upcoming editions of The News.