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KSBA News Article

Joining forces


School boards must decide what’s best for their community and students – sometimes that may mean voting themselves out of existence

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2019

By Brenna R. Kelly and Matt McCarty
Staff writer

As a Mercer County high school senior in 1988, Dennis Davis (pictured) heard rumors about his school merging with rival Harrodsburg High School. 

Eighteen years later, Davis was assistant principal at his alma mater when those rumors came true and Mercer and Harrodsburg Independent become one. Today, Davis is superintendent of the united district which, after the merger, opened a new high school with a new mascot – the Titans.

“I think the merger’s been the best thing we’ve done in Mercer County,” he said. “I think it’s helped bring the community together. … Kids now, for example, they don’t know anything other than the Titans.”

For as long as there have been Kentucky school districts there have been school district mergers. Kentucky was home to more than 500 school districts in the early 1920s, after this year’s merger of Silver Grove and Campbell County, there are 172.

“Over the years, local school boards, we think in every case, voluntarily negotiated the terms of a merger,” said Eric Kennedy, KSBA director of advocacy. “When you think of all of the things, controversial or not controversial, that a school board is making decisions over, the biggest decision of all may be deciding to put yourself out of existence.”

Kentucky’s trend of declining districts mirrors the nation. School districts across the country have consolidated over time. In the 1939-40 school year there were 117,108 school districts across the country. By the 2016-17 school year there were 13,598, an 88 percent decrease, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Mergers and closures can happen for many reasons, but in recent decades in Kentucky, school district mergers have been the result of either financial difficulties or concerns about student performance, Kennedy said.

School board members are left with tough decisions, often pitting what is best for students against tradition and community pride.

“That is the most selfless decision that a board member can make in the interest of kids, in the interest of the viability of offering a world-class education to the kids of that community,” he said. 

Continual consolidation
In 1922, Kentucky had 388 small independent districts separate from the county districts, according to a 2015 report by the state’s Office of Education Accountability (OEA). After legislative efforts led many districts to consolidate, the number of independent districts was down to 191 by 1931, the report stated. 

In 1934, the General Assembly passed legislation to allow only county school districts and independent school districts (ISD) with more than 200 students. The law also said that each district would be governed by an elected school board of five members. Many independent districts could not meet the new requirements, and were forced to merge, along with the city districts, with the county systems, according to the Kentucky Historic Schools Survey, a 2002 report by the Kentucky Heritage Council.

The idea was to provide students with opportunities that one-room schoolhouses could not provide.

“Consolidated schools combined the financial resources of the districts enabling them to fund several instructors who could teach specialized subjects to children of the same age group,” the report stated. 

Through the decades, independent districts continued to merge, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes to desegregate.

Lexington and Fayette County were mandated to merge in 1967, and in 1975 the Louisville and Jefferson County Schools were forced by court order to implement a desegregation plan that necessitated merger, according to the OEA report. 

In the past 31 years, six independent districts have merged with county districts. Today, 52 independent districts remain. While all of the recent mergers were decided by the local school boards, that doesn’t mean the mergers were easy – for board members, staff or students. 

But declining enrollment, increasing property taxes needed to run the district or lack of ability to offer students what they need leads some boards to decide it’s best to merge. Districts can’t just cut expenses such as principals, councils, or librarians, which all are required under state law, Kennedy said. 

“Because some of the state requirements that say every school has to have one of these things and every district has to have one of these things, that there is a certain economy of scale that has to be there,” he said. “There is probably a certain point where a given community is too small to be a separate district without significant sharing of services.” 

No choice
That’s what happened to Providence Independent in 2006. The district’s high school building was condemned, its enrollment was down to 400, and its test scores left the district ranked last in the state.

While it was a voluntary merger, for Venita Murphy, who was chairwoman of Providence Independent’s board, it felt like the board had no choice. 

Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) officials were pushing the board to merge, she said. And when a board member resigned, a pro-merger replacement was appointed.

“Even though we took a vote at the end, it was already a done deal,” Murphy said. Not only was the Providence board skeptical, but Webster County officials were concerned about classroom space, inheriting its buildings and providing assistance for struggling students. 

KDE helped Webster by providing $5 million in bonding capacity so the district could add on to its high school. It also provided increased funding for technology and staffed the district with a highly skilled educator and special education consultant. 

For three years after the merger, KDE allowed the districts’ state test scores to remain separate. Murphy, who lost her seat when the districts merged, was appointed to Webster County board in 2013 and has since won subsequent elections. 

Now, 12 years after the merger, Murphy said the two districts finally feel like one.

“The board we’ve got now is for all kids,” she said. “If a kid from Providence gets something, everybody celebrates it. Now it’s not a kid from Providence, it’s a kid from Webster County.” 

Merged and Mighty
When visitors walk into Mercer County High School, they can’t help but notice a large mural of the school’s seal painted on a wall. The seal features the Harrodsburg High School Pioneer’s mascot and the former Mercer County High School Scottie’s mascot. Underneath, the seal reads: Merged and Mighty. 

When the districts merged, both closed their high schools and built a new Mercer County High School with the input of both districts, Davis said. The community chose the new mascot the Titans, while keeping the old mascots on the school’s seal.

“I think Harrodsburg Independent alumni feel like they gave up more than Mercer did, but then when you talk to Mercer people they closed their school, too,” he said. “So you have to be conscious of that history, embrace it but then promote from here this is where we’re going.” 

Teachers at Mercer County also received a raise, because Harrodsburg teachers were paid more. That created a hardship because the merger occurred just before the 2008 recession, he said. Enrollment has also fallen by about 500 students because there are fewer children in the community. 

The merged high school is able to offer more academic opportunities such as Advanced Placement classes and dual credit classes, said Davis, who has seen the benefit of those opportunities not only as a superintendent, but as a parent. 

“My kids both had opportunities they probably wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t have merged,” he said. “They received a great education, they’ve done wonderful in college so I can’t say enough good things about the merger.”
Merger law
Boards of education of any two or more contiguous school districts may by concurrent action merge their districts into one. In case of a merger, the members of the boards of education of the merged districts may serve out the terms for which they were elected. The resulting district shall take over all the assets and legal liabilities of the districts joining in the merger. Tax levies authorized for the payment of interest and the retirement of bonds or to create sinking funds for such purposes shall continue to be levied and collected over the same area by or for the new board in accordance with the laws under which the levies were originally made until all bonded obligations of the old district have been retired.
– KRS 160.040
A forced merger?
West Point Independent is challenging a state audit that recommended the state take over the district. Even before the audit’s release, Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said he believes that the district should consider merging with Hardin County Schools. 
The West Point Independent board voted unanimously to appeal the audit that was critical of the board, the district’s instructional practices and its fiscal management, according to the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise.
After the audit, superintendent Mickey Brangers resigned and the district is now being led by interim Superintendent Sally Sugg, a former Henderson County school board member. 
Before this school year began, the district had discussed merging with Hardin County but decided not to pursue a merger this year. The district had 121 students this past school year. 
The Kentucky Department of Education will hold a hearing on the district’s appeal, though that date has not been set.
Manage the merger
Merging two school systems can be tough. Superintendents and boards have many details to iron out starting with a merger agreement and ending with merging students and possibly staff.  

And in many cases, some people are working on the merger at the same time they are mourning the loss of their district.

“You are dealing with human beings. Yes, you have to do all the numbers and all of the paperwork, but there are humans involved and it takes an emotional toll on everyone,” said Jim Palm, who oversaw the closure of Silver Grove Independent while serving as interim superintendent. 

“The Campbell County folks were very cooperative and we worked well together and that’s what I think really got us through it,” he said. 

Campbell County Superintendent David Rust said he sought advice from administrators who had been involved with previous district mergers.

“If there’s a next time somewhere else, I’m probably going to be the one to get the phone call,” said Rust, who documented the process by creating a shared Google document.   

While attempting to plan transportation for the new students, Campbell County discovered that many Silver Grove students had P.O. Boxes as addresses. That made it hard to plan a bus route, he said. And though they tried to enroll the students, even on the first day of school Campbell County didn’t know how many students they would get. 

“Once we got into about the second or third day of school,” Rust said, “it started to balance out with how many kids we were going to have and then we were able to make some modifications to the bus routes to accommodate, but that was a little tricky.”

Campbell County had to inventory Silver Grove’s property and take ownership of student and teacher records, figure out what to do with grants, property titles and other minutia. 

“We’re not done yet,” Rust said. “The kids are here and we’re teaching them, but we still have disposition of the building and we’re still surplusing some material. We’re still working on transition activities.”

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