The announcement in early August that the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board had decided to merge three high schools brought the issue of consolidation back into the spotlight.

In a plan targeted for completion by 2022, Wilkes-Barre will combine Coughlin and Meyers high school, and then bring in GAR Memorial – dating to the 1920s and named for the Grand Army of the Republic.

Some residents still oppose the merger, the Associated Press reported.

But a recent example in the Susquehanna Valley suggests that consolidations can be accomplished without too much struggle.

“It’s never an easy conversation," said Cynthia Hutchinson, an elementary school principal at Midd-West School District, which merged two rival high schools – West Snyder Area and Middleburg Area – in 2004.

Midd-West School District was formed in 1970, but maintained two high schools for 34 years.

"People get upset, and people get angry, but (mergers) are always done with the thought of what’s best for kids,” Hutchinson said. 

Funding, curriculum boost

Public schools in Pennsylvania faced a crisis about six years ago with state funding, leading many districts in the state to make hard decisions.

Midd-West closed two elementary schools, and now operates the Middleburg Elementary School, West Snyder Elementary School, Midd-West Middle School and Midd-West High School.

Hutchinson and two other principals say the decision was a good one. Middle School Principal Dane S. Aucker used to be an elementary school principal and high school principal Thor R. Edmiston used to be a teacher when the high schools merged. Hutchinson shifted to an elementary school from the high school principal.

Closing the schools provided more funding for resources, curriculum and other opportunities. Fiscally, it was smart, the principals said.

The biggest hurdle is having two school cultures and two communities join together, Aucker said.

“Once they understood, and got accustomed to the school, they enjoyed it and being part of a bigger family,” Aucker said. “I think the students did very well with it.”

Hutchinson said when she arrived, she wouldn’t have known there was a merger only 14 year ago. The subject rarely came up, and everyone blended well, she said.

Pieces of the old schools are still living in the new schools, including a giant bell from Perry-West Perry in the main lobby and wrestling mats from both high schools as a tribute to both programs.

Edmiston said adults talk about the merger more than the students do.

Victor Abate, a Midd-West School Board member since 2011, was on the board closed West Beaver in McClure and Perry-West Perry Elementary School in Mount Pleasant Mills in 2012. Abate opposed the closures then and still considers the closures a mistake, believing the idea of a centralized school district was the driving force instead of saving money.

Some students have bus rides of more than an hour, Abate said.

Line Mountain School District, based in Herndon, closed its elementary schools in Leck Kill and Dalmatia before the 2013-14 school year. The district renovated the elementary school in Trevorton to accommodate the extra students and added a new wing at the high school to form a new middle school.

Superintendent Dave Campbell said the internal consolidation has balanced class sizes and provided more opportunities for teachers at each grade level to share ideas and what strategies work, now that they’re in the same building.

“Without the consolidation we would not have realized the savings in both staff reduction and the operation of two buildings,” Campbell said.

Sharing services

In the Susquehanna Valley, the Lewisburg Area, Midd-West, Mifflinburg Area, Selinsgrove Area, and Shikellamy school districts in Snyder, Union and Northumberland counties share services for SUN Area Technical Institute in New Berlin. Line Mountain, Shamokin Area and Mount Carmel Area share services for Northumberland County Career & Technology Center in Coal Township.

Lewisburg Area and Selinsgrove Area also share a food service director in Kevin Oswald.

"We share our food service director with Lewisburg and SUN Tech," said Selinsgrove Area Superintendent Chad Cohrs. "Sharing, where possible, can reduce costs for all parties. Sharing of teaching staff for certain subject areas can also benefit students. This could allow offering a language or upper level course to students if the teacher schedule permits."

Additionally, the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit in Milton, a regional education service agency, offers shared services and cooperative purchasing for 17 school districts and three career and technical centers in Columbia, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties. Programs and services used in 2016-17 by members include after-school activities, data analysis, driver education, instructional coaching, professional learning opportunities, fiscal management services, guest teachers and transportation.

John Kurelja, the assistant executive director and chief academic officer of CSIU, said many districts are faced with high costs of educating students with special needs. Work Foundations+ is a secondary special education program focused on providing comprehensive academic instruction and real-life career exploration, experiences, and training to students with disabilities to best prepare them for successful post-secondary training and education, employment, and independent living.

"We bring special need students that wouldn't necessarily make it in a vocational school, we give them vocational skills and opportunities to go out and work for businesses and develop skills they can take after they graduate," Kurelja said. "There's no way an individual district can do that on their own, but when you bring 60 or 70 kids together, you can develop a pretty comprehensive program."

The CSIU also offers transportation for students in 12 district for special education programs, he said, and provides cooperative purchasing. CSIU will put bids out for technology and supplies, and can provide districts with a reduced price for the items, he said.

Mercer County consortium

A grassroots organization in Greenville is searching for the solutions to solve a tangled web of education problems.

The Consolidation Consortium is researching a better way to provide quality education in Pennsylvania. Its mission is to have Mercer County superintendents sit down, talk and unite so that together they can garner enough momentum for a study from Pew Research Center, which only conducts studies for large groups.

Is consolidation a way to strengthen Pennsylvania's underfunded education system? Maybe, said Kit Weyers, leader of the Consortium. It could be a matter of consolidating administrators to lead all of the schools in Mercer County while leaving students at their current schools, she said. Consolidation has many definitions, which people don't always realize, she added.

However, Weyers said that the Consortium wants to hear what Pew thinks is the best solution – and how Mercer County school districts can achieve it.

Mercer County has 12 school districts and a shared Career Center, each with its own administrative team that oversees school districts as small as 444 students, such is the case in Commodore Perry School District. The largest school district in Mercer County is Grove City with 2,450 total students.

The main supporter of consolidation, Mark Ferrara, retired this summer as the superintendent for Greenville. Although he said he will continue to support consolidation, his "sphere of influence" has greatly changed, and he's not sure what kind of role he will play moving forward.

His ideas for consolidation include "magnet schools" throughout the county that would specialize in STEM, performing arts, agriculture and others.

The districts would save money by sharing resources, which would include administration. As superintendents and their staff retire or move on to other opportunities, these positions would not be filled but rather consolidated, Ferrara said.

Justin Strawser is a reporter for The Daily Item in Sunbury. Sharon Herald reporter Natalie Eastwood contributed to this story.