Judging solely by their high school mascots, the proposed consolidation of the Montgomery-Lonsdale and Le Center school districts doesn't sound all that promising: Could Redbirds and Wildcats really get along?
But school leaders in both communities say the marriage would benefit their students, helping maintain programs and expand opportunities in an era of financial stress for schools across Minnesota.
In a special election on June 28, local voters will decide whether to merge the districts. If both communities approve, Le Center high school students will join their neighbors in the fall of 2012 at a new high school in Montgomery.
Both districts expect funding deficits over the next five years. Given the state's budget woes, school leaders say that significant cuts are ahead if the districts don't join forces.
"We can't continue to pay increasing costs without any new money coming in," said Amy Barnett, a Montgomery-Lonsdale school board member. Consolidating, she said, "will help us keep what we're currently offering much more than if we continue as two separate districts."
The merger could also help expand course offerings through economies of scale, said Matt Helgerson, a co-superintendent in Le Center who will lead both districts.
Both districts are small: Le Center has about 630 students, while Montgomery-Lonsdale has 1,100.
Le Center has so few students that high school teachers can offer only one or two sections of many required courses. That makes scheduling difficult for some students, limiting their options for electives, Helgerson said.
Consolidating also could allow teachers to offer some new courses that, advertised separately at the two schools, wouldn't attract a critical mass of students.
Students such as Tadd Stasney, 16, see that as a plus. "It would also really help our sports," the Montgomery junior said of the proposed merger. "We need numbers."
Even so, Stasney is not excited about the idea of a new mascot. "One of the biggest bummers for me is that the name would change."
If consolidation is approved, students in both districts would vote on a new mascot and school colors.
Residents opposing the merger include Lillian Hoffman of Le Center. "For one, we hate to lose our high school," she said. "For another, I don't think it's good for the city."
Hoffman fears that, without a high school in town, Le Center would be less attractive to new families. She also worries that the loss of school sporting events and other activities now held in Le Center would hurt local businesses.
Helgerson pointed out that Le Center would still be the county seat, and said no decisions have been made about where to hold school events.
Students in grades K-8 would continue to attend schools in their hometowns.
In Le Center, the building that has housed grades 4-12 would serve grades K-8. The space that has been used for grades K-3 could be used for programs such as after-school childcare, Helgerson said.
Effects of consolidation
Emotionally, change is hard, Helgerson said. But students would join forces at a good moment, he added, just as the new high school opens in Montgomery.
Montgomery-Lonsdale is in the midst of major building work, including the expansion of an elementary school that will serve as the district's new high school. The current high school, also under renovation, will house elementary and middle school students.
If the districts merge, they will share excess levies and bond sales already approved by voters. Le Center property owners would assume responsibility for paying off a third of the debt -- about $10 million -- incurred by Montgomery-Lonsdale for work on the new high school.
Overall, existing taxes would be spread with the goal of neutralizing the impact of consolidation, Helgerson said. Homeowners in Le Center and all property owners in Montgomery-Lonsdale would see either no change or a decrease in school taxes. Commercial, industrial and agricultural property owners in Le Center would see an increase until 2017, when the burden of existing taxes would drop for everyone.
But even if the districts consolidate, school leaders are likely to seek additional funding from voters in coming years, Helgerson said.
Even if the districts don't merge, they plan to share a superintendent next year. Montgomery-Lonsdale Superintendent Corey Lunn is leaving this summer to lead Stillwater schools.
If the districts merge, their school boards will work together starting in July 2012. Six months later, they would reduce to nine members, then seven in 2015.
Both boards approved the public vote after months of community meetings and research about consolidation.
Brad Arndt, president of the Le Center Chamber of Commerce, said he likes the idea of merging "because it's going to give the kids more opportunity."
Still, he has some questions. "Most people want to move to a town that has a school. How is that going to affect our population?"
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016