More mergers as school districts face tight budgets, fewer students

Students celebrate graduation
Students throw their caps into the air after the final graduation ceremony at the Cyrus Math Science and Technology School in Cyrus, Minn., on May 30, 2013. The magnet school closed this spring and is being consolidated into the Morris school district. The school had a total enrollment of 35 students in preschool through sixth grade.
Ackerman + Gruber for MPR

The Oklee and Plummer schools in northwestern Minnesota shared sports teams and resources for nearly a decade. So when officials sought to merge the small town schools into a single district to save money, voters in June didn't blink. Many thought the districts were already merged.

"They just felt it was a natural time to put it together -- let's build a future now as one instead of two districts," said Jim Guetter, superintendent of the remade Red Lake County Central district.

School district mergers don't often go so smoothly. Schools are a deep source of pride and identity in many communities. Mergers bring some loss of control. People rarely want to see their neighborhood school close or see their children bused to the next town, even if it makes financial sense.

This spring and summer, eight districts are combining into four new districts, the largest number of consolidations in 16 years, the Minnesota Department of Education says.

They included Oklee and Plummer in northwestern Minnesota, the Cyrus and Morris districts and the Brandon and Evansville districts in west central Minnesota, and Round Lake and Brewster in the southwestern part of the state.

It's nowhere near the dozens of mergers that happened every year in the mid-1990s. But it shows that districts still see it as a money-saving option, especially when enrollment lags and funding is tight.

In June people in Round Lake and Brewster voted overwhelmingly to consolidate.

Interim superintendent Cornelius Smit said years of falling enrollment was going to force the two districts make drastic cuts to academic programs or run the schools in the red -- something state education officials don't like to see.

"Parents could readily see that if their secondary students were going to get a good quality of education, we were going to have to do things differently," Smit said.

School district consolidations since 1990
Using date supplied by the Minnesota Department of Education, this graph shows the number of school district consolidations in the state each year since 1990.
MPR Graphic/Bill Wareham

Consolidation means the high school in Round Lake, where enrollment in grades 9 through 12 had fallen below 200 students, will close. High school students will open enroll in surrounding towns such as Worthington, Okabena and Fulda in Minnesota and Lake Park in Iowa.

The reconfigured district will have one elementary school, in Brewster, and the districts' two school boards will be pared to one.

The consolidation grew out of a cooperative effort that was already in place between the two districts. They shared a superintendent, a few teachers and special education staff.

The state doesn't track the number of districts involved in these so-called pairing and sharing agreements, but estimates put the number at a couple of dozen Minnesota districts.

Consolidations are fairly smooth in districts that already share teachers, curriculum and buildings, said Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, a group that lobbies on behalf of rural districts.

Mergers, he added, make sense for districts facing budget problems or declining enrollment. And he expects a steady drumbeat of such combinations in the future.

Reading to younger kids
A student reads to younger schoolmates before the final graduation ceremony at the Cyrus Math Science and Technology School in Cyrus, Minn., on May 30, 2013. The school had a total enrollment of 35 students in preschool through sixth grade. The magnet school closed this spring and is being consolidated into the Morris school district.
Ackerman + Gruber for MPR

"Not every district needs an accounting office and payroll and things like that," Nolan said. "I think you're going to see more sharing of services and eventually you may see fewer school districts through consolidations."

The latest round of consolidations means Minnesota now has 333 school districts, down about 100 compared with two decades ago.

Even so, there are 182 districts in where fewer than 1,000 students are enrolled. So the potential for mergers remains.

As a teacher in the mid-1990s, Guetter saw the pain of consolidation when residents of Stephen and Argyle feared it would mean the loss of their community identities.

Guetter says the consolidation in Plummer and Oklee will hardly be noticeable. The elementary school will remain in Oklee and the high school will stay in Plummer, about 15 miles away. Both towns will have pre-K programs, and there won't be any layoffs or building closures.

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