The dilemma of
In rural Pennsylvania, school districts are shedding students. Could consolidation save them?
July 11, 2017
Valerie Brooks remembers a time when Greene County was thriving and teens had plenty to do not far from home.
In her native Waynesburg, the youth once had their choice of places to go for food or enjoy an evening with friends. There was an arcade, pizza shops and a bowling alley. Many of those hangouts have disappeared.
“It’s sad. Everything’s gone. It’s not charming anymore,” said Brooks, 51, a mother of three who has watched people abandon her rural neighborhood during the last decade for more populated areas — like Pittsburgh or Morgantown — in search of jobs.
Public schools across Greene County have felt the blow from a loss of students. In the last 12 years, enrollment in publicly funded schools in Greene County has dropped by more than 1,000 students, from 6,076 in 2004-05 to 4,977 in 2015-16, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education [PDE] data.
Greene County’s public schools are not alone; many other districts in the state are shedding students from their rolls.
Enrollment in publicly funded schools across Pennsylvania has dropped by more than 96,000 students between 2004-05 and 2015-16, to about 1.7 million, PDE data shows.
There are many contributing factors, including students leaving public schools for charter and private schools, or moving out of the region. Steve Robinson of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association [PSBA] said population decline is a major culprit.
“There’s less people; therefore, there’s less students attending the schools,” he said.
In PSBA’s “State of Education” report for 2016-17, which surveyed school leaders from across the state, 19 percent of chief school administrators in rural school districts cited declining enrollment as the most difficult challenge they had to manage within the last year, while less than 6 percent of urban and suburban school leaders shared that concern.
The five public school districts in Greene County have adapted by shrinking staff sizes, offering fewer class and consolidating school campuses. They’re also eyeing up ways to share services and bring new opportunities to the area for students when they graduate, be it jobs or education.
Consolidation of districts — at least at the administration level — is a viable option in the near future to save costs and run more efficiently, according to Central Greene School District Superintendent Brian Uplinger. However, not everyone agrees a consolidation of districts would help Greene County’s education system.
Across the state, Robinson said, the most recent voluntary merger between districts he can remember occurred in 2009 when Center Area and Monaca school districts in Beaver County became the Central Valley School District.
Others have discussed it. They often start by talking to their neighbors. Yet, Robinson says there are concerns about the lack of resources, or clear steps, on how to make it happen.
And, mergers and consolidations don’t always save money, Robinson said, adding that districts should do an economic feasibility study if they’re considering it. The districts need to decide if it’s a right fit for them.
A closer look
The Central Greene School District, which covers 176 square miles of mostly rural land — stretching north to Washington County and south to the West Virginia border — is losing roughly 30 students each year, Uplinger said.
In 2009-10, the district had more than 2,000 students enrolled. Today, there are 1,765 students attending its three schools, which include an aging middle school that dates back to 1928.
When Brooks, who now works in accounts payable at Central Greene, graduated from Waynesburg High School in 1983, she recalls there were 250 people in her grade. By comparison, the 2004-05 class graduated with 165 students, and the number dropped to 143 by 2015-16, according to PDE data.
A loss of students has resulted in fewer teachers and offerings in the schools.
In Uplinger’s four years at Central Greene, which serves between 40 and 45 percent of its students free or reduced lunch, the district has gone from 169 to 156 teachers. All left through attrition. Financially, the district, which operates on a $34 million operating budget, has been tapping into its reserve fund to balance the budget for many years, Uplinger said.
Cuts to programs were mainly made in the electives field, most notably family and consumer science, foreign language and physical education, Uplinger said.
“There’s less offerings. Less ability for them to get what they’d want,” he said. “You certainly don’t have a well-rounded student if you’re lacking art or physical education.”
Students at Waynesburg Central High School used to have the option of taking sewing and cooking classes throughout the day. Now, they have only cooking offered once a day.
Foreign language offerings were cut, too. French is now only offered for two years of study in the high school. Students desiring to take French 3 can sit in a segmented part of the French 2 class and learn simultaneously.
All of the changes have made scheduling classes difficult, Uplinger said.
With the declining enrollment, school officials have tried to provide new opportunities for students that would prepare them for careers available in the area, so they can stay in Greene County, if they wish.
The district once had “coal-minded’ classes, like the ‘Natural Resources’ technology education elective, that focused on coal jobs in the area. Now, classes in the district and those at the Greene County Career and Technology Center have shifted focus to train students for jobs in the oil and gas industry.
In Central Greene, at least four or five coal mines once operated in the district, Uplinger said. Today, there are three: Dana Mining, Cumberland Mining and Green Hill Mining. The loss of jobs, he said, has contributed to people leaving the area.
The district has tried to keep parents informed on how to adjust, and Uplinger said it’s also working to provide students with opportunities in other sectors so they’re prepared for graduation.
“We’re shifting that mindset, trying to get everybody away from the coal mine philosophy because I don’t believe they’re coming back,” he said.
Uplinger has joined boards and committees across the region to bring jobs back to the area, which is also a point of discussion when the five superintendents from Greene County districts meet monthly.
“We’re losing people. There’s nothing here. How do we help that situation?” he asked. “In my mind, we need to partner and look larger than just Central Greene. We need to look at Greene County as the resource and what does Greene County have to offer.”
With the loss of the Westmoreland Community College in the area, the five district superintendents are working with county leaders to find new partnerships for the region. That includes trying to bring a new community college to the area.
Uplinger is looking for ways to operate more efficiently at Central Greene.
Renovations at the nearly century-old Margaret Bell Miller Middle School would cost upward of $13 million. Instead, district leaders are looking to move all students onto one campus, where the elementary and high school buildings are located.
Following a feasibility study of the district’s buildings, board members met with architects from four firms and administrators narrowed down their choice of conceptual designs to start moving forward with either a renovation or building a new structure to move middle school students to the high school campus. The project is currently under consideration.
The hope is to have all district students, along with the administration, on the main campus by the 2019-20 school year. Financing for the project has not been determined, although Uplinger said it likely will include borrowing.
Neighboring West Greene School District — which covers 256 square miles and is comprised of small communities and rural neighborhoods — has already undertaken a similar effort, consolidating its three elementary schools into one.
In the 2006-07 school year, the district closed Aleppo Elementary and moved its students to Springhill-Freeport Elementary School.
Two years ago, West Greene closed its two remaining elementary schools, Springhill-Freeport and Graysville, and opened the new West Greene Elementary Center. One of the closed schools had served 400 students, while the other two were educating between 30 and 40 students. The merger netted a savings of $300,000 a year, Superintendent Brian Jackson said.
“The biggest savings in that was transportation,” he said. “We’re maneuvering kids into one area.”
Jackson said his district is also dealing with a large decline in students.
Thirteen years ago, there were 1,100 students, he said. Now, there are fewer than 700 students.
In West Greene, however, coal mines are expanding, Jackson said. The companies are buying land, and towns are disappearing. Oil and gas drilling companies also have a large presence in the district, which stretches along the south and west-most borders of the county.
Jackson is exploring partnerships with colleges to provide students at West Greene with better class offerings.
Yet, even as the district leaders across Greene County work to make things better, Uplinger said more may need to be done to make the school system efficient. He envisions a consolidation of the five Greene County school district administrations into two: Jefferson-Morgan, Carmichaels and Southeastern Greene as one and West Greene and Central Greene as the other.
“We’re losing people. There’s nothing here. How do we help that situation?”
Each could keep its own schools, just merge at the upper level, he said. “They could still keep their identity. They would have one superintendent, one business manager, one central office functioning over all three districts. That would be more physically responsible than what’s currently occurring,” he said.
The county is too large geographically to merge individual schools, he said. Some students are already on the bus for about 45 minutes in Central Greene. A merger of schools could double that.
Uplinger said he envisions the districts in Greene County moving forward with some type of consolidation within the next 10 years.
“We may be forced to do it at the state level,” he said. “We need to do it on our terms, prior to being forced to do it on someone else’s terms.”
To move this forward, agreement among all parties is key. “We would have to have our school boards sit down and figure out the best route,” he said.
Consolidation is something that was talked about years ago, Jackson said. It’s something he says he probably wouldn’t support if it were brought to the table today.
“My kids went through a small school system. I think there’s a lot of value to that,” he said. “I think the folks of their individual area like the idea of having their own individual education.”
Southeastern Greene Superintendent Rich Pekar said he doesn’t foresee a consolidation between Greene County school districts happening in the near future. In Southeastern Greene, enrollment dropped by nearly 25 percent between 2000 and 2008 after the closure of local coal mines. Since, enrollment has been consistent at about 640 students, and the district has been adding honors and Advanced Placement [AP] classes to its curriculum.
Gwen McCullough, who works in payroll and benefits in the Central Greene School District, said her son graduated from the district in 2006. Two and a half years ago, he moved to Washington County, where his wife is from, but he works in a mine in West Virginia.
McCullough 52, said the area has a lot to offer if people would stay.
“Greene County is a great place. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. It’s family. It’s quiet and clean,” McCullough said. “I just hope people hang in there and stick with us while we get there.”
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