Minnesotans love local control — especially when it comes to public schools. Understandably, they want to keep decisions made about their children as close to them as possible.
Yet in these times of limited resources and tight budgets, parents and others should expand notions of “local’’ — both to better educate students and spend tax dollars wisely.
To that end, eight Minnesota school districts are smartly merging to create four, marking the most consolidation among districts in 16 years, according to the state Department of Education. More districts should follow their lead in balancing control with financial responsibility and education reform.
Admittedly, it can be difficult for residents to close a single school — let alone an entire district. Community identities often are tied to the long histories schools have as neighborhood institutions. However, the long list of successful cooperative efforts and consolidations over the years should allay those fears. Clearly, families and communities can continue to have influence on their schools even after a merger.
This spring and summer the following districts consolidated: Oklee and Plummer in northwestern Minnesota; Cyrus and Morris and Brandon and Evansville in west central Minnesota, and Round Lake and Brewster in the southwestern part of the state.
That small wave of mergers brought the number of Minnesota school districts down to 333, about 100 fewer than there were two decades ago.
Yet the state still has too many smaller districts that are in increasingly difficult struggles to survive. Minnesota has 182 school systems with fewer than 1,000 students — some with only a few hundred kids spread over 13 grades.
With declining populations to pay taxes and smaller numbers of students, it becomes more difficult to attract teachers and offer the variety of classes that today’s students need to get a good education. And extracurricular offerings such as debate, sports, band, and other music and art opportunities are more limited with smaller student populations.
Smaller districts that still operate completely independently need to consider more district-to-district or regional cooperation — including consolidation. That’s important both to save money and to provide good educational opportunities for students. Some studies have shown that districts with fewer than 1,500 students can save up to 30 percent of their budgets by combining with one or more similarly sized districts.
Minnesota has a good history of cooperation, especially over the past few decades. At one time, there were 1,000 public districts — some consisting of a single one-room schoolhouse. Now about a third as many serve about 830,000 students.
Legislation passed in 1978 helped districts share staff, programs and students. About a decade later, a cooperation-and-combination statute was adopted to provide grants to encourage more-permanent consolidations. As a result, in the 1990s alone 76 districts were created from 171.
The newest wave should help pave the way for more mergers. Some residents of the merged districts may barely notice the difference. The Oklee and Plummer schools, for example, have shared sports teams and resources for nearly a decade.
And residents in Round Lake and Brewster voted to make their merger official after years of collaboration, including sharing a superintendent, some teachers and special-education staff.
Local control need not translate into more than 300 different school boards, superintendents and administrations. To offer quality education as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, school districts should continue the cooperative trend.