MONACA, Pa. - Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak hopes the looming merger of two struggling Beaver County school districts will lead to similar deals between other districts.
The Center Area School Board is scheduled to vote June 12 on a resolution that would seal the district's merger with the neighboring Monaca School District. Terms of the merger, which had been discussed since 2005, were finally hammered out Thursday night.
"It's historic," Zahorchak said. "School districts all around the state are talking about this. There are probably eight or 10 different pairs in the talking stages."
Center and Monaca decided to merge because their shrinking student populations had led to concerns about wasted building space and the inability to offer anything more than basic programs. Specialized courses are harder to justify when few students are available to take them.
The districts expect to save $1.5 million annually and have been promised $500,000 from the state to cover one-time costs associated with the merger.
The real benefits, however, may be reaped by other districts that should consider merging for the same reasons, but have been putting it off, said Zahorchak and Tom Gentzel, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
"Parents and taxpayers need real, specific examples and answers as to how things will work," Gentzel said. "If we get one or two of these that work well, it will certainly make it easier for others."
Both districts have been losing students steadily since the early 1970s. Center has 1,850 students, down from 3,242 in 1971, while Monaca's enrollment had dropped from 1,517 to 709 during the same period.
Area educators say an ideal district enrollment is 2,500 to 3,500 - big enough to justify special programs and to use resources and buildings efficiently but small enough to not overwhelm individual students.
Pennsylvania has 501 school districts and 211 have fewer than 2,000 students. Sixty-five others have fewer than 1,000 students.
While those numbers would seem to argue for more mergers, the Center and Monaca school boards found out that the devil is sometimes in the details. The merger almost fell apart when the school boards couldn't agree whether to close all of Monaca's school buildings or use the high school building as the middle school of the merged district.
Under the compromise reached Thursday, the districts will consolidate effective July 1, 2009, and will combined their kindergarten through fifth-grade students in Center's elementary schools that fall. Middle and high school students will merge in the fall of 2010, but only after studies are done on how to provide buildings for them.
Zahorchak said those difficult negotiations might make things easier for future districts to merge.