Amid money squeeze, 8 Minn. school districts merge

Neighboring Minnesota school districts are becoming companions at the fastest clip in years, with eight districts deciding this spring to merge with another to save money.

State education officials told Minnesota Public Radio News for a story Monday that the consolidations are the most in the last 16 years. It’s still nowhere near the dozens at a time that occurred in the mid-1990s.

But with lagging enrollment and tight funding, some districts are left with little choice. Voters in the Oklee and Plummer districts in northwestern Minnesota decided last month to formally merge the two after sharing sports teams and resources in the years before.

“They just felt it was a natural time to put it together — let’s build a future now as one instead of two districts,” said Jim Guetter, superintendent of the remade Red Lake County Central district.

Mergers can mean loss of local control, longer bus rides for kids and closed community school buildings. But they can also spare academic programs that one district can’t support alone.

Minnesota now has 333 school districts, which is down about 100 compared with two decades ago. More than half the remaining districts have fewer than 1,000 enrolled students.

Voters in the southwestern towns of Round Lake and Brewster overwhelmingly backed consolidation in a referendum this spring.

Interim superintendent Cornelius Smit said dropping enrollment threatened to force drastic cuts to academic programs.

“Parents could readily see that if their secondary students were going to get a good quality of education, we were going to have to do things differently,” Smit said.

Still, the high school in Round Lake will be closed and some students are choosing to head elsewhere, even schools in northern Iowa.

Some districts that have merged for years had been engaged in cooperative arrangements — sharing superintendents, teachers and special education staff. Hard numbers on such arrangements aren’t available from the state, but those are the places most likely to merge in the future.

Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said he expects a steady drumbeat of combinations in the future.

“Not every district needs an accounting office and payroll and things like that,” Nolan said. “I think you’re going to see more sharing of services and eventually you may see fewer school districts through consolidations.”