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Nationwide budget cuts force renewed talk of consolidation

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2003

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Nationwide, state governments are struggling with the worst budget crisis in a half-century. This is the latest installment in ''Tough Times-Tough Choices,'' an ongoing series by The Associated Press examining the real-life consequences of the decisions being made in statehouses from coast to coast.

WALDO, Kan. -- Peering out from behind the counter at the Waldo post office, Carol Shaffer remembers when this tiny north-central Kansas village had two grocery stores, two filling stations and a vibrant K-12 school.

But it has been 39 years since the last graduating class at the high school and 29 years since the grade school was closed in a merger with another school district. Shaffer thinks Waldo's slow decline can be tied directly to the loss of its school.

''It's just the story of small counties,'' she said, ''younger people leaving and not enough trade to keep stores open.''

And now Kansas lawmakers and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius are taking another look at consolidation. They wonder whether a state facing a budget shortfall of $750 million can afford to have 303 school districts, especially when two-thirds of them are losing students. The state spends $2.3 billion on its schools -- 52 percent of all state tax dollars.

Kansas officials aren't alone in their dilemma, not with most states facing serious budget problems. In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Huckabee has proposed cutting his state's 311 school districts to 116. Pennsylvania and New York offer incentives for districts to merge.

Consolidation is a touchy issue. In Arkansas, superintendents and parents alike protested Huckabee's plan. And Sebelius acknowledges there's ''still blood running in the corridors'' as a result of the forced mergers in the 1960s that cut the number of districts from 1,800 to about 300.

But the state is in a financial crisis some officials say is the worst since the Depression.

There are nearly 500,000 elementary and secondary school students in Kansas, but one-third of them are enrolled in only six districts. Fifty districts have fewer than 250 students.

''Study after study tells us we have too many districts,'' said Rep. Kathe Decker, chair of the House Education Committee. ''Hopefully we'll come up with something not everyone will hate.''

Resistance to consolidation remains formidable. House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney believes potential savings are overestimated.

''This will in no way fix the state budget,'' he said.

Elsewhere, the story is the same. In Nebraska, consolidation efforts started more than a decade ago. Since 1991, more than 330 of its districts have dissolved, leaving 517.

In Kansas, a law enacted last year allows a district to consolidate with one other district but receive funding for four years equal to what the two districts received independently.

Sebelius isn't looking so much to save money overall but to free up dollars for classrooms by reducing administrative, transportation and other costs. The real question, she said, is how the state can improve its schools.

But there is concern over what dissolving school districts will do to rural communities, which in Kansas lost more than $1 billion in income last year because of a continuing drought.

''It doesn't matter how much money you pour in, you never can replace the school building,'' said Senate Education Committee Chair Dwayne Umbarger.

Shaffer, 70, a lifelong Waldo resident, said her neighbors felt as if they'd lost their collective identity when they lost their school in 1970.

''They were really mad when they built the school building in (the) late '50s because we knew consolidation was coming down the road,'' she said.

Waldo was founded in 1888 and named for a Union Pacific Railroad official. Shaffer remembers taking the train from Waldo to Salina for day trips until the depot closed in the 1960s. She also remembered fondly the old fashioned drug store with a soda fountain and ice cream counter. The store closed when the proprietor retired.

Waldo's population has dropped from 123 in 1970 to just 46. It has a beauty shop, an antique shop and a gas station that repairs cars but does not sell gas. The school is now a senior center.

''Anyone can use it if you ask for the key,'' Shaffer said.



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