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Rural Districts Merge, Close as Enrollment Drops

As the school year winds down, rural districts across the country are considering ways to make their schools more sustainable, which in many cases means closure and consolidation.

An Education Week video that aired Tuesday on PBS NewsHour highlighted the consolidation debate in Vermont, where voters will decide next week whether to merge many of the state's small schools. Supporters say the new, larger schools will then be able to offer more classes and extracurricular activities to students, while opponents say small schools can give students more individual attention.

Several schools districts in rural Iowa are also consolidating or closing this summer due to declining enrollment numbers or poor academic performance, according to an article by the Associated Press.

The changes come at a time when the majority of Iowa's 99 counties are experiencing declining populations and schools are losing funds that are contingent on student numbers. At the same time, several districts in Iowa's suburban areas are expanding or planning to build new schools.

Nearly half of Iowa's school districts are small and rural and they serve about 36 percent of the state's students. In districts that are merging or closing, many of these students will now face longer commutes to school, and leaders of those schools say their transportation costs will increase despite receiving no additional funding for transportation from the state.

Jesse Ulrich, superintendent of a newly merged rural district, said in the article that the district only receives funds for the 800 students enrolled, despite the fact that the district covers 250 square miles. "We don't get any additional funding because we have to travel them farther. That takes away the money we actually get to spend on educating kids," Ulrich said. 

Consolidation has been proposed or utilized in other states like South Carolina and Maine as a way to save money and potentially boost academic offerings in rural districts. South Carolina's superintendent of education Molly Spearman proposed consolidation earlier this year in the hopes that consolidated districts could then offer more classes.

Some research has found that consolidation and the newly-created larger schools can offer more courses and professional development for teachers. At the same time, opponents of consolidation have highlighted the importance of schools to small, local communities. Some research shows small schools often have higher graduation rates and students have equal or better performance on tests than their peers at larger schools. 

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