Enrollment-wise, the Union Area School District is the smallest in Lawrence County, with total kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment predicted to be 758 by 2020.

That leads to some conjectures that it would be the most logical district to merge with another.

Union Superintendent Mike Ross, though, said he generally is against consolidations.

“Over the past two decades, a large body of research exists that suggests smaller schools are more impactful than larger schools in regards to student achievement, school climate and parental involvement,” Ross said.

He is aware that Union comes up frequently during merger conversations, “but we’re not interested and we don’t need it. Quite frankly, we’re doing well in almost every aspect of the educational experiences, so why would we want to change that?"

Smaller class size, the intimate nature of the school, a vested interest in student performance and the connections to families are arguments against seeking a merger partner, Ross said.

“I don’t believe it’s best for the kids.”

A study conducted by the Joint State Government Commission in 2016 looked at reports from across the country concerning public school consolidations. It cites a National Education Policy Center review that pointed out "a century of consolidation has already produced most of the efficiencies available when it comes to merging districts."

Consolidation efforts involving several of the state's smallest school districts – those well under 1,000 students total – stand out as potential exceptions, however, according to research by two New York professors who are nationally recognized as school finance experts, William Duncombe and John Yinger.

Combining two 300-student districts could cut overall costs by 20 percent, they wrote. In comparison, little impact would be seen for the merging of two 1,500-student schools.

"The net benefits of consolidation are positive only for the smallest districts," they wrote.

The downside: because those districts are so small, the savings they'd create wouldn't mean much at the state level, they added.

Somerset County neighbors

While the report does not specifically list Salisbury-Elk Lick and Turkeyfoot Valley school districts in Somerset County as examples, but both are rural districts with similar enrollments. They share boundaries and have similar taxes – important factors, according to the report.

Salisbury-Elk Lick had 276 students with a senior class of 22 in 2017. The latest budget was $7.1 million and the district has a 23.11 millage rate for real estate taxes, according to district data.

Turkeyfoot Valley had 347 students with a senior class of 23 in 2017, a $5.6 million budget, and a tax rate of 27.37 mills.

Even their superintendent salaries were nearly identical as of 2016: $90,000 for Salisbury Superintendent Joe Renzi and $87,750 for Turkeyfoot Superintendent Jeff Malaspino.

State Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Somerset/Fayette counties, was unseated in 2016. Before that election loss, he held several public meetings about consolidating the two school districts, but both superintendents said no further conversations have been held since Mahoney left office.

Mahoney in 2015 introduced legislation that would require school districts to consolidate their administrative functions on a countywide basis.

"Our school board is interested in maintaining our district here," Renzi said. "We're not interested in that kind of conversation. The school is academically and financially viable. It's the center of town and the community. The school board feels strongly about a school in this community."

While the two school districts are similar in size and share boundaries, Malaspino and Renzi said the geography of the area could make transportation an issue. Turkeyfoot is 101 square miles and Salisbury is 60.

"We're situated in the mountains," Malaspino said. "In the winter, that's not a great option. You're going up and over a mountain range in one direction or another. There's no direct route."

Mount Davis, the highest point in Pennsylvania, is on the border of the two schools, Renzi noted.

Turkeyfoot does share athletic services with neighboring districts to give students an opportunity to participate in programs it does not offer. For example, the district co-ops with the football program at Meyersdale Area School District, other fall sports such as soccer, volleyball, tennis or golf at Rockwood School District and wrestling at Berlin Brothersvalley School District.

Turkeyfoot pays a small fee — an average of $300 per student — for participation, Malaspino said.

Salisbury also co-ops with Meyersdale athletically. Meyersdale students go to Salisbury for soccer and Salisbury students go to Meyersdale for football, track and wrestling. Renzi said Salisbury sometimes shares transportation on field trips with neighboring districts.

"We do and are willing to work with other school districts to share services," Renzi said.

Saint Clair Area and Pottsville in Schuylkill County share the same high school through a 10-year deal that has the former paying an annual fee of $1.6 million. The move was cited in the Joint State Commission's 2016 study as a cost-saving alliance that other districts might copy – and the type of carefully planned move that could eventually lead to district consolidation.

Internal moves, tight funds

In Cambria and Somerset counties, a number of the region's shrinking districts – and even some whose enrollment has remained steady such as Greater Johnstown – have opted to consolidate their internally, closing outdated elementary schools or replacing middle schools with additions to a high school.

Central Cambria, Conemaugh Valley, Greater Johnstown and Westmont Hilltop have all closed at least one school building over the past eight years.

When Windber Area renovated its high school in 2016, it reduced the building's size by nearly 40 percent.

Consolidation and merging won't work until the state has a solid education funding plan, Windber Superintendent Joseph Kimmell said.

"Then I think you'll see people start paying attention," he said.

Dr. William Gathers, superintendent of the Mercer Area School District, acknowledged that mergers could save money by the elimination of administrative positions and district functions. Mergers could allow the new district to save hundreds of thousands of dollars through the elimination of superintendents and assistant superintendents alone.

Mercer is a mostly rural school district, and the town of Mercer – the county seat – has a population of 2,002, according to the 2010 census. The district absorbed Coolspring, East Lackawannock, Findley and Jefferson townships in 1950. Mercer Area’s estimated 2017-18 enrollment is 1,118.

“Most of us are small enough,” Gathers said of the districts surrounding Mercer. “Obviously one of them could go.”

At nearby Reynolds School District, with a 2017-18 enrollment of 1,066, Superintendent John Sibeto said the state has recently asked the school to consolidate but has never forced that step.

“I know we’ve been asked a number of times within the last 10 years," he said. "It’s coming down they might not even have to ask if we don’t have the funding. School districts might have so little money they don’t have a choice but to consolidate.”

Geographic barriers

Midd-West School Board Director Victor Abate said he doesn’t see any further opportunities to merge within the district – which combined two high schools in 2004 – or outside.

“I don’t see a way that it would be humanly possible” to merge Midd-West with neighboring districts, such as Selinsgrove, Abate said.

The option of consolidating more buildings is not on the table, according to middle school Principal Dane S. Aucker.

Shamokin Area School Board Director Charlie Shuey said geography might prevent further district consolidation in the Susquehanna Valley.

Lewisburg Area Superintendent Steven Skalka agreed that the size and geography of local school districts are the reasons why locally mergers likely won't happen.

Neighboring districts have "large footprints" and Skalka doesn't see a need for a county-wide school system. It's his opinion that such a system isn't good because a larger district means a less personal touch from the superintendent.

Selinsgrove Area Superintendent Chad Cohrs said the most recent consolidation was in 2010 when the district closed Jackson-Penn Elementary School and moved the kindergarten classes into the Selinsgrove Elementary School.

"Since we are now consolidated into a campus setting, there is no other opportunity to merge buildings," Cohrs said. "Merging buildings allows for more services and offerings for students and better utilization of staff. As for merging with another school district, I don't foresee that occurring for us.

"The main factors that have prevented other districts from merging are issues with teacher contracts, loss of local control, transportation issues and increased overall costs."

Justin Strawser is a reporter for The Daily Item in Sunbury. The Sharon Herald, New Castle News and The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat contributed to this report.