The Transylvania Times -

Guest Column: Community Or Consolidated Schools: Clear Choice

 

October 5, 2017

Courtesy Photo

Transylvania County Board of Education

Should one or more schools be consolidated in Transylvania County Schools?

As Board of Education members, our responsibility to Transylvania County voters includes determining how many schools and programs we must have – and want to have – to serve all students effectively and efficiently. For that reason, we are pleased and not surprised that this question is being considered very carefully by the public, our students, families and staff, and our fellow elected officials.

Last month, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jeremy Gibbs presented "consolidation" as a solution in search of a problem that doesn't exist. Another word, "deactivation," can describe the closing of a low-performing school, or one which is no longer needed.

We will address again here the question of whether to continue operating two traditional high schools in Brevard and Rosman and - if so - how best to accomplish this as good stewards of the public trust.

Looking at the educational and social needs of our students and community has made the answer very clear to us. Our community schools don't just offer the best education available; they strengthen community networks essential to the success of our students, helping them become the caring and productive citizens we prepare them to be.

We hope you will want to know more after reading this article. To help, this article will also be posted on the Transylvania County Schools website, along with research and other documents at http://www.tcsnc.org/planning.

"Community schools" are by definition small schools. They serve the fabric of a whole community, as a physical and social presence in the place where families live, work and play.

Decades of research into their benefits has been summarized in "Dollars and Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools," available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org.

While we are led as consumers toward things which are newer and bigger, research shows that smaller, established schools provide vastly better outcomes in a more cost-effective package.

Close relationships among students, staff, families and community partners in smaller schools are one of the most significant benefits, directly affecting the most important success indicators, such as graduation rates, parent and teacher engagement, and community support.

Graduation rates are far higher in schools with fewer than 1,000 students, and the money spent to graduate each student is much lower. Crime and violence in school decrease along with school size, and this also extends outside the school. Factoring in the costs when a community absorbs students who drop out, the positive return jumps dramatically on investment in smaller schools.

Parents and teachers rightly prefer a close relationship with leaders of a school, and that proximity is a leading indicator of the education children receive.

No single school is consistently strong in all areas at all times. With that, there is no better environment for 'educational choice' than schools where teachers are entrusted with autonomy as professionals, where parents are well-known and welcomed at the school, and where teachers and families are empowered to shape the course of children's education.

Community involvement in schools rests on the trust of partners-individuals and organizations-who fulfill their mission by meeting needs identified by the school. From charitable giving to collaborative programs and volunteer service, research shows that partners are inspired to serve their communities by nurturing their schools.

Keeping students physically close to schools also improves achievement, and it unites a community by reducing the cost - in time and money - of transporting children by car or bus.

When schools grow, the direct cost per pupil actually grows, since the number of routes stays constant but routes grow longer. Affected children can lose an extra hour or more each day just in transport to and from school.

Who makes up the loss? Children and their families: through less time for homework, fewer after-school activities, and decreased family time, all major factors in student success.

All nine Transylvania County Schools have a track record of meeting or beating expectations in student achievement, parent and community engagement, and a healthy balance of school and social activities for students.

So, if none of our schools is slated for closure due to poor performance or failing to fulfill their mission, why close one school just to enlarge another?

Concerning the number of our high schools, we have heard three main reasons, in short: fiscal sense, athletic strength and curriculum choice. Our research finds these to be unsupported as theories and unwise given our local situation.

Some suggest that a single high school is the way to address dwindling high school enrollment in Transylvania County. While over the past 10 years, enrollment is largely unchanged at Rosman High and has recently ticked upward at Brevard High after decreasing significantly, several reasons show that any imagined savings will be hard to realize and may result in far higher costs to our community.

Research conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) in 2008, and plenty of anecdotal evidence, shows that a negative and opposite effect is achieved by closing schools. Eliminating neighborhood schools encourages students to leave a school system altogether, resulting in lower enrollments and exacerbated fiscal problems.

There is also the indirect impact to the economic status of the community.

Studies indicate that dislocating students to schools outside their community leads to reduced extra-curricular and parental involvement. Schools are the mark of a community's vitality, attracting and keeping younger families. When a school closes, these opportunities decrease or disappear.

A community already facing job loss and decreased wages may expect a further erosion of community relations and trust in government, according to research by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, who suggest that communities and policy-makers should treasure and protect smaller schools.

Efficiencies available from consolidating schools have already peaked in systems of our size, and further consolidation is known to create "diseconomies of scale" that reduce efficiency and sacrifice student achievement. What about a decreased student population stifling economic development? The reality is that dwindling enrollment is not why a local economy struggles; it's not even a contributor. In fact, the opposite is true.

A struggling economy causes conditions that lead to lower enrollment. As a whole, Transylvania County realized 10 or more years of growth in tax revenue and per capita income on the strength of tourist activity and government transfers (such as retirement, disability, health care). During that same time, the average wage per job has decreased by $2,000 per year, compared to an average $1,500 increase for all North Carolinians.

Data shows how difficult it is for young families to find competitive, living wages and live in this community, unless they commute outside the county. Add to this the rising cost of land, housing and the overall cost of living, and despite those headwinds, Transylvania County Schools will experience a 2-percent enrollment increase this year.

This tells us our schools are strong enough to attract families who want to raise their family here despite the economic challenges, and that those families may be rewarded again in time with improved employment as the work of diversifying and strengthening our local economy takes hold.

And yet, what about cost savings? Despite the revenue increases and historically low tax rates in Transylvania County, some say "times are tight" and schools should do their part and reduce costs for Transylvania County.

Having reviewed comparable examples in North Carolina and around the country, we found that the math for constructing a single high school simply won't add up to savings at all and would, in fact, lead to significant new expenses that drown out any short-term savings. See the example we have provided above.

Rather than a cost savings, higher costs would arise just from the actions required to merge the two high schools. Factor in "diseconomies of scale" and the problems multiply: increased staff, lower student achievement, and increased crime and violence that emerge in larger schools.

A second claim is that nagging issues of low participation and low performance would improve by combining the strengths of two schools into one. Scant evidence supports this belief in a "sports powerhouse," and our experience of conference realignment every four years demonstrates that the desired benefits are imaginary.

Not enough players to fill rosters? Not in our schools. Would a single high school fare better versus current competition? Using the latest realignment numbers from the N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA), a consolidated school would compete in a different conference alongside larger schools (even after consolidation).

Closing a high school results in lower participation, with a smaller number of student-athletes likely to attempt joining a sport. Based on past results, the next realignment might put a consolidated school up against Asheville High, A.C. Reynolds, T.C. Roberson and other large regional schools. All these schools have larger student bodies than the combined Brevard and Rosman high schools, by up to 50 percent.

Ask any coach or athletic director about conference realignments, and they will describe the loss of long-standing rivalries and higher gate receipts that sustain their programs. Increasing the number of sports to compete in a larger classification would require additional coaches and travel costs. A consolidated school would require wholesale re-branding and color combinations, new mascots, a brand new identity outside the traditions of either community and the further erosion of natural rivalries.

If you can imagine no Blue Devils or Tigers, eliminating generations of tradition and community pride, there are still added costs.

New athletic uniforms would cost over $100,000, new band uniforms another $90,000 to $100,000. A new football field with artificial turf, new stadium, and other new athletic venues would be an enormous undertaking, for the sake of taking on larger competition, supporting increased sports, additional costs and lower participation among the student body.

The third and final question, the most hopeful of them, asks whether a single high school would offer greater opportunities for each student, and for the school as a whole.

Common sense tells us at least one student might find a new door opened in a school that offers a greater selection of course offerings. Yet, our environment is already driven by educational choice regardless of a student's geographical location, and students largely enjoy those benefits today.

Thanks to our wise technology investments, flexible transportation, and programs on other campuses offering both high school and college course credit, a consolidated high school would not improve course prospects. Students are already allowed to take coursework at either high school (and they travel in both directions).

Some believe a consolidated high school would sprout a larger arts or music department (or some career-technical areas). In fact, some specialty teachers would be assigned to address middle school needs created by the separation of shared programs, particularly in Rosman.

While this offers no guarantee of increased scheduling flexibility, it would potentially increase pressure on certain areas already in high demand. Online opportunities address hard-to-fill sections in areas such as foreign languages. Existing Advanced Placement courses might see larger class sizes, not necessarily more class options.

We are adamant about providing options for struggling students, which includes offering a range of enrollment options to high school students in our county. Students' well-being and health, and a strong sense of identity, are important success factors and critical for youth development. This is especially true in our ever-changing society-local and national-where we already witness and take direct action on many social issues, including homelessness and mental health.

Would a single high school provide budget relief by reducing staff costs? Here again, no economies of scale will deliver on that vision.

State guidelines for effective school operation would not cause us to reduce school leadership and administrative staff, because larger high schools have a different, but not smaller, set of needs. Reducing the number of schools would instead remove state allotments for that school and not necessarily support the new hires and reassignment needed to help the larger school operate effectively. This alone could cause an increase in local funding needs of $150,000 or more. The bottom line: strong chance of no personnel savings costs, with increased local costs instead.

What problem are we trying to solve? That question stands front and center for elected officials, stewards of the public trust and our children's future. If schools fail to realize a level of effectiveness and efficiency that all agree on as a norm, then closing a school despite the increased costs to the whole community may be an option.

However, that is not the problem we are trying to solve. Our schools, which once served 4,200 students, now house roughly 3,420 after a modest increase in 2017. There are costs associated with operating these schools, and our community has the operating capacity and resources in reserve to provide what is needed and appropriate.

Lower enrollment did not cause economic changes in Transylvania County, and any wavering in our community's long-standing commitment to the education and development of our children would have an added negative effect on the economy. Rather, we honor our county's investments in early childhood development, technology and student nutrition. These are wholly consistent with the fact that healthy children, given the opportunity, will meet high expectations and grow to their full potential as healthy adult citizens of our great nation.

We envision a Transylvania County where economic opportunity is expanding, where those who build up their community are rewarded by the fruits of those efforts. We oppose steps that would diminish the pride and spirit that inspire our school communities, reinforce barriers to educational and social achievement, and increase economic distress across the county.

We do not believe that "this is as good as it gets" for this county. Together, we embrace the view that our schools should remain this community's foundation for student and family growth, civic pride and economic development.

Our best days lie on the road ahead. We are convinced that this period of deep reflection on how schools achieve their goals will lead to an even brighter future for our students and Transylvania County.

Transylvania County

Board of Education

Tawny McCoy, chair

Ron Kiviniemi, vice chair

Marty Griffin

Betty Scruggs McGaha

Alice Wellborn

 
 

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