As some school districts in Northern Kentucky experience decreasing student enrollment, educators are exploring options to increase efficiency.
With a strong correlation between student population and state funding, fluctuations in enrollment can seem ominous, especially for small school districts.
“Small districts can’t survive if enrollment declines,” said Hiren Desai, associate commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Education Office of Administration and Support.
One potential solution to dwindling numbers is merging with another school district.
“There gets to be a certain point where you just can’t operate on your own,” Desai said.
Mergers, which take place once every few years in Kentucky, occur when two school districts combine to become more efficient. While enrollment is a factor, mergers are generally the result of financial insolvency in one of the districts.
“A merger is kind of like a last resort,” Desai said.
When Southgate Independent Schools faced a financial crisis in 2004, citizens so adamantly opposed the possibility of merging that they agreed to raise property taxes by 40 percent over the previous year, said superintendent Jim Palm.
“The people spoke very clearly they did not want to merge,” he said.
Although rumors of closing or merging the district occasionally have surfaced since at least the 1940s, it is not likely to happen soon, he said.
“People value the education their children get with independent districts,” Palm said.
“We know your child by their first name,” he added. “That’s why people pay the extra taxes.”
The community pride is at least partially to thank for the small district’s financial standing.
“We have a healthy balance,” Palm said. “We pay all our bills.”
For those districts whose board members see merging as the best way to improve efficiency, there are a few rules. Two contiguous districts can merge if both boards of education agree to do so. In this case, board members in both districts must agree on the district’s name, organization, master facility plans, how titles are transferred, how debt is handled and who will be superintendent.
“So, really, it’s almost like a marriage,” Desai said.
When two districts merge, the new district starts out with a 10-member board. As members’ terms expire, their positions remain vacant until the board is down to a typical five members.
While merging in some cases is an option to improve efficiency, there are circumstances under which the Kentucky Department of Education can step in.
“Our authority at the department's very limited,” Desai said.
When a district is financially insolvent but no agreement can be reached with another board of education, state representatives can force a merger.
Only three mergers have taken place statewide in the past 10 years. Harrisburg Independent merged with Mercer County in 2006. The following year, Providence Independent merged with Webster County. The most recent – and the only instance requiring state intervention – occurred in 2013, when Monticello Independent merged with Wayne County.
One of the biggest reasons districts resist merging is the loss of identity. Because Monticello Independent School District was more than 100 years old, it was important to board members to preserve the district’s history, Desai said.
As an alternative to merging, many districts are forming partnerships that allow them to share resources without losing their independence.
“When we can, we all try to help each other,” said Ken Ellis, superintendent of Silver Grove Independent Schools.
Silver Grove and Southgate Independent school districts are two of 18 school districts that make up the Northern Kentucky Cooperative for Educational Services.
“We have real good working relationships with all the superintendents,” Ellis said.
Southgate Independent Schools share a food service director with Silver Grove and a gifted and talented teacher with Newport Independent Schools. The district also takes advantage of an alternative school and special education services available through the co-op.
“We all want to do what’s best for students, and we help any way we can,” Ellis said.