skip to main navigation skip to demographic navigationskip to welcome messageskip to quicklinksskip to features
  • Continue Your Membership
  • WEAC Member Benefits

Consolidation: A Last Resort

Retired Lake Holcombe physical education teacher Rosilyn Gates said she is saddened by the declining educational opportunities for children in the school she loves.

By Harvey Black
Contributing writer

As a resident of Cornell and a recently retired teacher in the nearby Lake Holcombe School District, Rosilyn Gates has a close-up view of the severe damage school funding shortages inflict on these two rural school districts, and their impact on children.

Update: The Lake Holcombe School Board in July 2007 voted to reject seeking consolidation with the Cornell School District, after about a year of dialogue on the issue. President Al Dixon said community input and other factors swayed his decision to rule out a merger with the Cornell School District.

Dixon said the board would likely come back to voters for support in the form of a referendum to exceed its revenue cap. Lake Holcombe district residents in the past have repeatedly voted down measures to provide more funding for their schools.

The Cornell School District has been considering consolidation for several years. Talks arose between Cornell and Lake Holcombe after consolidation discussions between Cornell and Gilman ended in June 2006.

Posted September 6, 2007

With year after year of budget decreases, program reductions and staff cuts,“There are fewer and fewer opportunities for kids to find their niche,” she said.

There is simply nothing left to cut, added Lake Holcombe School District Administrator Tom Goulet. “We are at the point,” he said,“where if we have to cut,we’re drawing blood.”

Declining enrollments and school district revenue controls have combined to create such severe financial problems in Cornell and Lake Holcombe that leaders of the two communities are considering one of the most drastic of responses: consolidating into one large district.

It’s drastic because consolidation presents a wide variety of issues and problems of its own – the length of bus rides for children, the effect on businesses and the vitality of the communities themselves, the break-up of allegiances to community sports teams, and the web of complications related to the employment and contract rights of teachers and education support professionals.

And, noted Deputy State Superintendent Anthony Evers, there are the uncertainties of how consolidation would further impact school finances. Don’t assume, he said, that consolidation will automatically improve the financial makeup of the school districts.

A stained ceiling tile in a Lake Holcombe classroom is one indicatorof the repair, facilities and maintenance issues facing the financially strapped district. Worn
carpeting covers classroom floors, and aging computers fill the technology lab.

“One school district gets X level of state aid; the other school district gets Y level of state aid.Together what does that mean? We have to look at the districts and figure out how that’s going to change their state aid calculations,” he said.

Then there is the impact on the communities themselves. Schools, Evers said, carry a strong emotionaland economic influence in the life of a
small community.

“The school is the lifeblood of a\ community. It’s the biggest employer in town sometimes,” he said.

Often when a school closes and children are bused to a neighboring community, the community’s social support system begins to break down, loyalties die, businesses begin to fail, and home values decline.

The beginning of that decline can already be observed in Lake Holcombe where, Gates said, there used to be more interest in fighting to maintain a separate identity and sense of community. Now, she said, people whose children have left school,“no longer want to pay property taxes; they want to retire and not have to think about having a school.”

Cornell has been considering consolidation for a couple years.Talks arose between Cornell and Lake Holcombe after consolidation discussions between Cornell and Gilman ended last June.

High school location was a factor in ending the consolidation talks between Cornell and Gilman, said Steve Parker, president of the Gilman Education Association and a science teacher.A consolidation proposal called for the closing of the Cornell high school because the building at Gilman is newer.

“A lot of the (Cornell) townspeople objected to that.A lot of the community members at Cornell are concerned about,‘what’s going to happen to my business downtown, what’s going to happen to our property values if we lose our school building,’ ” he said.And Parker suspects that a town without a high school might have trouble attracting employers. “What new business is going to want to come into a town that can’t keep a school within its city limits?” he asked.

Schools, Evers said, carry a strong emotional and economic influence in the life of a small community. “The school is the lifeblood of a community. It’s the biggest employer in town sometimes,” he said. Often when a school closes and children are bused to a neighboring community, the community’s social support system begins to break down, loyalties die, businesses begin to fail, and home values decline. The beginning of that decline can already be observed in Lake Holcombe where, Gates said, there used to be more interest in fighting to maintain a separate identity and sense of community. Now, she said, people whose children have left school,“no longer want to pay property taxes; they want to retire and not have to think about having a school.” Cornell has been considering consolidation for a couple years.Talks arose between Cornell and Lake

Besides the possibility that consolidation would mean the closing of the high school in Cornell, distance was also a factor. Cornell and Gilman are approximately 20 miles apart; Lake Holcombe and Cornell are about five miles apart, although the boundaries of the districts spread out much farther – Lake Holcombe School District is 182 square miles, and Cornell is 100 square miles.

Both Cornell and Lake Holcombe are facing enrollment declines. Cornell enrollment has dropped from 570 in 2003-04 to 522 in 2005-06 – an 8% drop; in Lake Holcombe over the same period the drop has been from 495 to 428, or more than 13%. State school aid is based on enrollment, and although mechanisms are in place to lessen the impact on declining-enrollment districts, they aren’t enough to stop the bleeding.

Pat Allen

Pat Allen, president of the Cornell Education Association and a social studies teacher, said the district is simply looking at consolidation as an option for survival. “The ability for us to sustain the district is at risk because of declining enrollment and funding that is not compensating for that, if we don’t work with another district,” she said.

Cornell schools have a history of cooperating with Lake Holcombe schools,Allen said. For years, Cornell students went to Lake Holcombe for an auto mechanics class until Lake Holcombe eliminated that class. Lake Holcombe students have come to Cornell for science classes, she said. And the two districts’ junior high school football teams were combined.

Consolidation is not a certainty, but the failure of two referendum questions to exceed revenue caps in Lake Holcombe in November may provide more incentive for it. Currently four committees of residents and local officials of the two communities are examining issues related to consolidation: transportation, finance, facilities, and economic impact.A decision will likely be made in the next two years.

Goulet thinks consolidation is likely, but he sees it as an act of desperation, not as a solution to severe school funding problems.The current system, he said, is leading to a never-ending cycle of decline.

“Funding has to change. Otherwise, schools are going down,” he said.

Loyal-Greenwood talking too
Meanwhile, similar issues are generating equal angst just to the southeast where the financially struggling Loyal and Greenwood school districts are looking at the possibility of consolidation to stem the tide.

Under a plan drafted by a consultant, the high school would be in Loyal, meaning that Greenwood’s high school building would be shuttered. Both communities would maintain their own elementary schools.

A committee composed of members from each community is discussing the consultant’s plan, with a decision to be made in 2007.

Janet Wiemann

“Where the high school will be is probably a polarizing issue, because I think that people perceive that that has a lot to do with how it will impact the town because of sports,” said Janet Wiemann, president of the Loyal Education Association.

Consolidating the two districts is not a new idea, said Wiemann, a speech therapist at Loyal Elementary School. The issue came up about 10 years ago because of declining enrollments, a trend that is continuing. DPI figures show a drop in Greenwood of 6% from 2003-04 to 2005-06, from 489 to 459 students. In Loyal the drop is steeper – 9.5%, from 656 to 594 students.

It all comes down to money, and the ability of a school district to continue to provide a quality education to its children.With declining enrollment and declining state aid, options run short. “The property tax is not sufficient to support rural schools,” said Rhonda Opelt president of the Greenwood Education Association, and a high school math teacher.

“You can continue to cut programs until you get down to the bare minimum,” she said.“But it hurts the kids and the quality of education.

“The funding formula we have right now is not adequate to meet all the financial obligations we have, with teachers salaries, insurance and textbooks – everything that it takes to run a school,” Opelt said.

Rhonda Opelt

But, she cautions, consolidation is not a silver bullet. For one thing, she said, it may not save money.

“Districts have to take a long hard look before they consider consolidation. Is it a financial savings? Will districts be able to continue as a combined district? Will they be better off financially? And a lot of times the answer is no,” Opelt said.

For another, consolidation talks get to the emotional issue of what makes a community a community. For instance,Wiemann said, Loyal parents don’t seem thrilled with the idea of sending their children to Greenwood. “Loyal and Greenwood have always been rivals and among the adults there’s a lot of,‘I’m not going to let my kid go to Greenwood,’ ” she said.

Then there is the complicated issue of merging two contracts – each with its provisions for salaries, benefits, working conditions, seniority, and professional development.

“We are just completing contract issues for 2005-07,”Wiemann said.“My understanding is if consolidation is pursued, the next contract would have to be the consolidated one, and in our district that hasn’t even been discussed. There’s been no discussion on how they would decide seniority for teachers. Our two contracts differ in how seniority is counted.This is a very serious issue,” she said.

The six-year-old Cornell Elementary School (top) in downtown Cornell may be closed if the Cornell and Lake Holcombe School Districts consolidate, leaving one school in each community. The Cornell High School (right) would likely stay open.

DPI, Evers said, does not take a position on consolidation, believing decisions are best left to communities. However, he suggests districts continue to look at sharing services first.

“Our preference is that districts look at cooperation and consolidation of services rather than breaking down school district boundaries,” he said.

Many districts already have cooperative agreements, but they aren’t always the perfect solution either. Greenwood and Loyal, for example, do share some services including extracurriculars and special education, Opelt said. But Greenwood has also cut programs in the face of enrollment declines. She notes that the business education and agriculture programs have been reduced to part time.

Consolidations uncommon
Consolidations are not very common in Wisconsin. According to the DPI, the consolidation between Wilmot and Trevor in southeast Wisconsin in 2006 was the first consolidation since 1995, when the River Ridge School District was formed in southwest Wisconsin by consolidating the Bloomington and West Grant districts.

Before any consolidation can take place, it must be approved by all the school boards involved.A binding referendum is required if a petition is signed by at least 10% of the residents of an affected school district.

Beyond providing technical inforinformation to districts, DPI takes a handsoff approach to the issue, Evers said.

But while some districts may be willing to overlook the problems associated with consolidation for the larger goal of reducing costs and saving a struggling district, they may be surprised to learn that one of the main reasons cited for considering consolidation isn’t necessarily a valid one.

“There is little evidence,” Evers said,“to suggest that school district consolidation is a money saver.”

Posted February 5, 2007