School district mergers are a tough sell in Pennsylvania.
Twenty-nine years elapsed between the court-ordered creation of the Woodland Hills School District from five districts and the next merger, the voluntary combining of Monaca and Center Area in 2010 to form Central Valley.
Clairton sent letters to four districts in 2011 seeking to discuss possible jointures, but there were no takers.
That dismal history suggests that pessimism probably is warranted in the most recent discussion of a potential merger.
Moon Area would like to talk with neighboring Cornell about a possible merger, but Cornell so far has not voiced interest. That’s an about-face from prior courtships, in 1992 and 1998, when Cornell wanted to send its students to Moon on a tuition basis and get rid of its own schools.
This time around, Moon is the suitor. That’s unusual because it’s the larger district, with 3,700 students, and it has a far lower rate of economically disadvantaged students, just 16 percent. By contrast, Cornell is the smallest district in Allegheny County with just 650 students and 60 percent of its students from lower-income families.
It can be difficult for a district that small to remain financially solvent, and even more complicated to manage offering a sufficiently wide array of courses to challenge talented students as well as those who require extra tutelage. Although Cornell is doing well in the short term, a strategy of going it alone could prove problematic in the long run.
Communities become attached to their schools. They can define a town, be a popular gathering place or provide a sports team to rally behind. But eventually, math comes into play and the scale of tiny districts makes them unsustainable.
Even in the case of Central Valley, where both prior districts wanted a merger, it took incentives from the state to conclude the deal. Until the communities themselves see the advantages of joining forces for the sake of their children, though, no amount of outside assistance can make a merger happen.