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editorial 1/8/01

January 08, 2001

School consolidation issues involve more than the cash



Now that a Washington County Committee has identified nine Washington County elementary schools that the panel believes could be consolidated to save an estimated $2 million a year, it's time for this group to look at some side issues that could affect the projected savings - and the education of county schoolchildren.

The first order of business is to look at the optimum size for an elementary school. For example, if the system combined three schools of 300 students apiece, in theory it would be able to eliminate two principals.

But the price of doing that would be creating a school with 900 students, and what we worry about in that situation is not the academic stars or the special-education students. Each of those groups will have its champions within the system.

It's those in the middle we worry about, the students who cause no trouble, but who might, with a little encouragement, achieve a great deal more. Will they get that boost in a bigger school?

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In the case of some other schools, we have concerns about the transportation issues, depending on where the consolidated schools are built. We expect some students will face long bus rides while construction related to the consolidation is going on. But whether new sites are used or older schools expanded, how much time students spend traveling to them must be considered.

And speaking of sites, previous groups of elected officials closed schools during times of low enrollment, only to find the system was short of space when the population pendulum swung back the other way. It may be necessary to sell some sites to buy others, but the county should hold out for more than fire-sale prices.

None of this is to say that The Herald-Mail opposes consolidation, but among other things, the county government's record on cost-estimates has been spotty in the recent past.

It would be unfortunate to consolidate schools on the premise that it would save money, only to find out later that the savings are minimal and the educational environment made worse. In other words, this is a big undertaking and it has to be done right.

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