Analyzing The Pros And Cons Of A Panama-Clymer Merger
Today, Panama and Clymer residents will measure their collective interest in a potential merger of their school districts with a straw poll.
The straw poll, or advisory referendum, is necessary to continue discussions, but is far from the final step in the process.
What are some benefits of a merger? There are four key advantages for residents to consider.
The likely financial impacts of a merger between the school districts is easy to assess because costs and revenues can be projected into the future. Both districts face future explosions in costs and constrained revenues. The revenue picture should be particularly concerning because of the combination of the state’s 2 percent tax cap and mounting state budget pressures created by changes to federal funding for state programs and lagging state tax collections. The state could be looking at a more than $4 billion difference between revenues and expenses for next year’s budget if nothing changes between now and then. The state’s budget uncertainty makes it unlikely school districts will see large increases in state aid in the near future.
If revenues aren’t going to increase, it is up to local districts to save money as best they can. While both Clymer and Panama have reserve funds, they are in position to exhaust their surpluses within the next five years. The merger feasibility study, meanwhile, shows the districts can save more than $1.3 million in expenses in the first year of a merger in staff costs alone.
POSSIBLE NEW CLASSES
One recommendation is for a merged district to undertake a thorough review of secondary courses. The merger study recommends keeping Clymer’s agriculture and business programs, something Panama no longer has, and create a home and careers course. Advanced Placement courses and honors courses are also recommended. The creation of new courses could be one way to better prepare Panama and Clymer students who want to attend college for the more rigorous coursework they will have after high school.
A proposed universal pre-kindergarten through sixth grade in a merged district would average 21 children in four kindergarten classes; 16 students in four first-grade classes; 17 students in four classrooms in second, third and fourth grades; 25 students in three fifth-grade classrooms and 22 students in three sixth-grade classrooms.
At least early on, it appears concerns over class sizes have largely been dealt with, though the feasibility study indicates additional aides may be used in kindergarten and fifth-grade classrooms to decrease the ratio of children to adults.
Class sizes in the high school appear to be average roughly 11 students per class, though there could be smaller classes depending on what the district chooses to offer.
Both districts have seen enrollment declines over the past two decades. Enrollment trends show steady population or a slight increase in population over the next 10 years.
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Cost savings, mounting budget pressures and the possibility of a greater range of educational opportunities are reasons to merge the Panama and Clymer school districts.
Perhaps the biggest issue against the merger is uncertainty. Among the four biggest uncertainties for voters as they weigh their choices for today’s advisory referendum, or straw poll, on the merger.
The district would operate with the most efficiency if there was one school building. According to the feasibility study, only Panama could handle the entire student body of a merged district and even that would take require renovation.
A bigger concern is the feelings of residents of both school districts. Minutes of focus groups held over the summer show a constant concern about which buildings will be utilized if the districts merge.
The merger study recommends using both school buildings until more information is known about bus routes and developing a permanent plan to house students within eight years.
THE THIRD PARTNER
The study recommends finding a third merger partner within the first three to five years after a merger. Sherman was asked to join Panama and Clymer before the merger study process began and declined.
The merger study recommends using both districts’ existing bus garages and setting an expectation that no student is on a bus longer than 60 minutes. The problem, right now, is that neither district uses transportation routing systems, so it is difficult to tell how long bus rides would be for students in the district without purchasing software to create the best routes.
The merger study recommends reviewing all secondary courses. Among the possible improvements would be extending an agriculture program to Panama students, a home and careers option for both districts and a business program for Panama students. Advanced Placement or honors courses aren’t offered in either district and could be in a merged district.
One reason to undertake a merger of small school districts is to increase the quality of education for students. Right now, because the process is early, there is nothing parents can point to as something they are sure would benefit their child or children.