I recently read with great interest the June 2014, edition of “School Administrator,” a monthly publication of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). The publication focused on school district consolidation across America and its impact on individuals and communities. The articles were particularly meaningful to me as a former school district superintendent having served during the 2009 division of the Jordan School District, located in the south end of the Salt Lake valley in Utah.
The primary reasons for school district consolidation mentioned in the AASA publication were related to finances: economies of scale, declining student enrollments, and rising costs of building operation and maintenance. Similarly, a primary reason for the school district’s division I experienced while superintendent was finances: distribution of tax revenues, the need for new schools, and the remodeling of older ones.
This past year, I have also followed closely the discussions of various mayors and city councils regarding splitting the Jordan School District again. The reasons articulated by community leaders for considering another district division were not new. They again revolved around finances and local control of resources. While school district division is not the trend across America, the conversations surrounding a possible division, or even consolidation, provides a healthy forum for discussion of some fundamental values about education which have been long-held by communities all across our nation.
What makes schools a core institution of American Society?
What makes schools a core institution of American society? Schools offer significant learning opportunities for youth and adults to acquire knowledge and skills, develop attitudes and dispositions, develop relationships and interactions, and acquire experiences that prepare them for a future of possibilities and productivity within our democracy.
Communities have three fundamental centers of stability, namely, families, churches, and schools. Any perceived or real erosion in these core institutions, threatens the culture and cohesiveness of the entire community. In school districts where declining enrollments threaten to close neighborhood schools, or, in growing districts where additional schools are needed and not readily provided, there is a perception that one of the core institution of the community (schools) is at risk. This provides the motivation for vigorous discussion and debate about the origin and allocation of resources, both financial and human, to schools within the community.
Individuals agree that schools and schooling are important.
Contributing to the highly charged issue of school district consolidation or division is the lack of a common language among citizens when talking about the importance of schools in our communities, especially in the context of schools being a fundamental institution of our democratic society as a whole. Individuals agree that schools and schooling are important. They also feel their lives have been enriched by them, and they want the rising generation to have those same advantages. When people perceive that schools are compromised in any way, they react almost instinctively to rise up in their defense and preservation. This brings a flood of emotion to the stage of conversation. Unfortunately, emotion-filled words can divert the conversation from the basic issues of concern; namely, that people simply want excellent schools for their children and grandchildren, not only for their individual benefit, but also to strengthen the larger community.
Regardless of the context of the conversation, whether it be school district consolidation or division, so long as the motivations behind the rhetoric are to preserve quality schools and schooling as an essential element of the community, its citizens and their leaders will act in a manner that promotes the common interests of many as opposed to the individual interest of a few. No doubt, an allegiance to the common good of schools and schooling as a core institution of our society strengthens the entire nation.