Reluctant suitors: For school mergers, the state must sweeten the deal

Written by Susan Mannella on .

When Gov. Tom Corbett visited the downtrodden city of Clairton last month, he said school districts across Pennsylvania, faced with dwindling financial resources, should start looking into the possibility of consolidations or mergers.

Clairton's superintendent, Lucille Abellonio, took him up on the suggestion and sent letters to four neighboring school districts in which she asked to talk with them about a merger. Two of them, West Jefferson Hills and South Allegheny, said no, and the other two, Elizabeth Forward and West Mifflin Area, haven't replied.

The Carlynton school district got a similar tepid response in March, when its superintendent, Michael Panza, sent a letter to three neighbors; only Keystone Oaks expressed a willingness to at least engage in an informal conversation about it.

When it comes to school district consolidation, it's clear that asking nicely isn't going to be enough.

Merging some of the state's 500 districts could save big money in administration, purchasing, transportation and other costs outside the classroom, yet there are few proposals that draw as much fire as consolidation.

Mergers are beyond rare. When the Center Area and Monaca districts joined to form the new Central Valley School District in 2009, it became the state's first new district in a quarter-century and the state Education Department said it was the first voluntary school district merger ever. The state provided incentives to push it along, with then Gov. Ed Rendell committing $500,000 and the expertise of his education officials.

If Gov. Corbett wants more mergers, and he is right in seeking them, he's going to have to offer more than suggestions to get school boards to commit.

His next step should be offering some sweeteners to get these vital talks moving, both in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania.

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