Public school corporations have ways of improving student achievement without forced consolidation, according to local small school officials, including online learning and some degree of cooperation with other school districts.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce agrees but is renewing its push for improving the academic performance and economic efficiency of the smallest school corporations, with one of its stated goals to cut in half the number of school corporations with 2,000 students or less by 2035.

Locally, the Wayne County Area Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on school consolidation and doesn’t anticipate doing so in the near future, said Melissa Vance, Wayne County president and CEO. While it does encourage improved school performance, the local organization is separate from the Indiana Chamber.

Starting in the late 1950s, Indiana saw a decade of consolidation, forced by state law. Small schools across the state closed, including many in Wayne and neighboring counties.

from Indiana Department of Education

“Anyone who lived through the consolidation of the late 1950s and ’60s will tell you of the consequences,” Northeastern Wayne Schools Superintendent Dr. Matthew Hicks said. “If the desire is to make things better, I’m for it, but it’s not the tradition in Indiana. The concern is over local control. In Fountain City, Whitewater, Webster (schools that combined into Northeastern), the people still talk about how it affected the towns.”

More than half of the state’s 290 school corporations have fewer than 2,000 students. Of Wayne County’s five districts, only Richmond Community Schools has more.

The research found that students in smaller districts show deficiencies compared to larger districts and that larger districts can spend less money per student to improve results. “Comprehensive analysis and modeling reveals … improved outcomes if school corporations contain between 2,000 and 2,999 students,” the state Chamber reported in 2017.

“This is not about closing buildings or eliminating schools,” says Indiana Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar. “It’s about reducing per-pupil administrative costs to put more money into classrooms, increasing pay for deserving teachers, making more STEM classes available and, most importantly, helping ensure the best possible student outcomes.”

The state Chamber’s members – overwhelmingly, business interests — are concerned about how Hoosier schools are preparing the state’s future workforce, he said.

Similarly, Vance, from the Wayne County Area Chamber, said, “Our focus at this time is to work together to develop a future workforce with the right skills and the right connections to be successful employees for our businesses.”

Brinegar said the use of school cooperatives and online technology are other ways schools can become more effective at lower cost.

Nettle Creek Schools board president Dan Davis Jr. said, “I would be absolutely open-minded to creating a corporation that would be owned by the four school corporations, and maybe neighboring districts, that in a situation like where you have maybe six students at Hagerstown that need advanced physics and we can’t afford to hire a specialized teacher, that the corporation could hire a teacher that could teach at Hagerstown a couple days a week, at Lincoln a couple days, and offer that.”

Online learning is another alternative to consolidation in some cases; the state Chamber and others agree.

Union School Corporation, serving Modoc and Losantville in Randolph County, may be the extreme example of that. Union includes an extensive online academy. It included 235 traditional students who attended its lone K-12 building in 2022-23, but 6,974 students from all over the state attended in three divisions of its online academy.

Union School Superintendent Michael Huber noted that the state Chamber’s conclusions favoring larger schools are based on a study reported in 2017. Brinegar said that study is being updated this year.

In an email to Western Wayne News, Huber wrote, “The education landscape has changed drastically (since 2017), and in a way that serves students of both larger and smaller school corporations. We have been able to take advantage of tools that weren’t widely available, or at least in use by smaller corporations at this time. This includes partnerships with higher education institutions to provide dual credit courses. These institutions now have the ability to provide them virtually. Prior to Covid, all smaller schools did not have the ability to provide the access larger corporations did with their physical presence. Now we can marry the physical and virtual experience to fill any gaps.”

Davis agrees that dual credit offerings have allowed Nettle Creek to offer advanced classes that it couldn’t otherwise. “Our partnership with Ivy Tech has been a game changer,” he said

But he doesn’t put as much faith in online learning. “I believe, and I think research shows, that most kids learn better face to face, when they have an experienced professional in front of them who can tell by looking at them how well they’re doing.”  

While agreeing there are good reasons for in-person attendance at small schools, Huber counters, “Through an online academy you are able to really make a difference in individualized instruction. This is an important component of having virtual offerings. The best part is we do not have to re-build a virtual academy for every small school district, it is transferrable. We have the system in place already, and we can find programming for these gaps to ensure all students have access.”

Hicks, Davis and Huber all agree there are many advantages to small schools.

“I served in a school district where the superintendent was responsible for 154 different buildings,” Hicks said. The superintendent didn’t know most of the staff. At Northeastern, “I walked through all four buildings yesterday. Any staff who wanted to could talk with me with their concerns about anything.”

Union’s Huber said, “Small schools can offer the personalization that larger schools might not. Our brick and mortar school is an absolute necessity to our community for so many reasons. We’re a center for gathering, resources and knitting together a social atmosphere for our families. Our administrators and teachers know every student.”

State Senator Jeff Raatz, whose district includes Wayne County, says school consolidation should be a local decision. He chairs the Senate education committee.

He believes a plan he got made into law in 2017 still offers a good alternative, calling it “combining” instead of consolidation. School districts can combine their administrative functions — superintendent, transportation, bookkeeping — while leaving all buildings open.

“You’d still have all the schools. The Tigers, the Lions, whatever, they’d still be there,” Raatz said.

The state Chamber agrees that Raatz’s plan could make small school districts more efficient but, “Sure, it’s consolidation,” said Brinegar.

Davis sees it that way, too. About five years ago, he attended a meeting of three local school corporations – Northeastern, Western Wayne and Nettle Creek — about combining administrative functions. Raatz attended. Davis had agreed to go only if consolidation was not on the table but said it was apparent from the start that consolidation was the goal. “We didn’t stay long.”

“Combining” under the Raatz plan included having one elected school board with two representatives from each corporation and an at-large member, Davis said. While there might be initial agreement to keep all the buildings open, “What happens if the other board members don’t like it that Hagerstown High School has a swimming pool and they don’t, and they decide to close the pool at Hagerstown? So yeah, it’s consolidation.”

Hicks said the projected savings from that plan wouldn’t be much, either. “It would serve to save the superintendent’s salary,” he said, adding that Northeastern’s 1,375 students provide “an economically viable size.”

Brinegar said school improvement is one of many items the state Chamber will be lobbying for in the General Assembly.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 11 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Bob Hansen is a reporter for the Western Wayne News.