Gov. Ed Rendell wants to study whether the number of school districts in Pennsylvania can be slashed by at least 80 percent, bringing the total from 501 to a maximum of 100.
The scope of the proposal, released yesterday as part of the governor's budget, took some school district administrators and education observers by surprise.
Mr. Rendell recommended a 14-member legislative commission be appointed and take a year to come up with at most two different reorganization plans.
After a period of public comment, the General Assembly would have to give an "up or down" vote to each plan within six months -- with authority over consolidation transferred to the State Board of Education if the legislature does not adopt a plan.
"Almost everyone agrees that Pennsylvania has too many school districts," Mr. Rendell said. "This means that we have ever-increasing pressure to increase local property taxes."
While the topic of school consolidation is nothing new, the concept of only 100 school districts would be a dramatic change.
"I can't imagine that even happening," said Donna Belas, acting superintendent of the Cornell School District, which has fewer than 700 students and has engaged in several serious -- but ultimately fruitless -- merger talks over the last few decades. "It seems quite drastic."
State Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak cited the Center Area and Monaca merger in Beaver County as an example of how consolidation can save money.
Those school districts are in the midst of voluntarily merger, a process that so far has taken three years and is to take effect July 1. Center Area has 1,850 students and Monaca has 635.
Center Area Superintendent Daniel Matsook said the one-time costs for the merger amount to $1.5 million to $2 million because of expenses ranging from seeing that everyone has the same textbooks to new band uniforms.
While state money has been committed to helping pay those costs, the governor's budget proposal does not provide any additional money for anyone else.
Though Pennsylvania saw dramatic school consolidation in the 1950s and '60s, there has been little merger activity in the last 45 years. From 1955 to 1957, the number of school districts statewide fell from 2,700 to 1,900. By 1962, that number had fallen to 600.
Currently, Pennsylvania has 501 school districts, though one -- Bryn Athyn -- doesn't have schools. State figures for 2006-07 show 1.7 million students enrolled in the 500 school districts, making an average enrollment of about 3,480. If the number of districts were reduced to 100, the average enrollment would rise to 17,400.
In 2007, Standard & Poor's reported to the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee on the cost-effectiveness of consolidating school districts. It estimated savings would be more likely if the combined enrollments were less than 3,000 students.
Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center and a former state legislator, called the governor's proposal "politically gutsy," given the opposition that is certain to follow from innumerable interested parties.
"For a long time I've believed that Pennsylvania does not have 501 academically or financially viable school districts," he said.
Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the number of districts is "clearly something that's going to have to be done in time," adding, "We're very receptive to it."
Some observers questioned whether consolidation always actually saves the money it promises.
Jim Manley, superintendent of Pine-Richland School District, which has about 4,500 students, suggested identifying specific needs rather than widespread mergers.
He questioned how much money would be saved, saying that larger districts have more layers of administration. He also said it would diminish local control and the personal feel school districts have for their students.
Tim Allwein, assistant executive director of governmental and member relations of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said that his organization plans to release a research paper in April that looks at other states that have had forced consolidations.
"The research does not show any significant savings nor does it show any increase in the educational product of school districts that have merged or consolidated," he said.