By T.J. Pyette
Two out of four Hi-Line schools originally exploring consolidation together are still involved in the process.
The KG and Blue Sky school districts are continuing talks to consolidate districts while the J-I and Chester school districts are no longer part of the discussion.
Terry Grant, Blue Sky superintendent of schools, said consolidation became an option to look at as enrollment numbers have decreased.
"We started looking at options and ways to continue to provide our students with the same educational opportunities, despite lower numbers," Grant said Monday.
Although consolidating districts may not save as much money as one would think, Grant said, "We will be able to have more students under one roof, which will increase the number of class offerings we can provide."
"We may be beating the gun on this," he added, as school consolidations may become an issue in the upcoming legislative session as a way to trim state education budgets.
State Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, agreed that the next session will be looking at all types of consolidation.
"There are a number of plans out there," Musgrove said today, adding that he recently reviewed a new bill request that calls for countywide school districts.
"Schools and the school systems have to be more efficient," Musgrove said, noting that consolidation is just one of the issues legislators will review in regard to state education budgets.
Ed Warner-Combs, superintendent of schools at J-I, said J-I did not opt out of the consolidation process, but that the process took a different direction, which doesn't include J-I at this time.
"We are in a wait-and-see position here," said Warner-Combs on Monday.
Superintendent Mike Perry of Chester school district said Monday that Chester is currently at a standstill on any consolidation at this time.
After it became clear that KG and Blue Sky were going ahead with consolidation plans, J-I and Chester considered combining those two districts, Perry said.
Both Chester and J-I then conducted community surveys addressing the issue of consolidation, and both communities returned favorable responses.
Perry said the problem is that J-I wants to keep at least one of its buildings open, and Chester wants to keep all of its buildings open.
"While we understand J-I's position," Perry said, "if the issue is saving dollars, it isn't going to happen by keeping buildings open there if we were to consolidate with them."
KG and Blue Sky schools have hired two consultants who will make recommendations on how best to merge the two school districts.
The consultants, who visited both districts in October and interviewed staff, students, community members and administration as well as reviewed pertinent district information, will provide their recommendations on how the two districts can most effectively consolidate at a meeting tentatively scheduled for Jan. 7 in Hingham.
Grant said he thinks the work of the consultants was very thorough and encompassed all aspects of the districts from financial documents to building measurements.
"They traveled through the schools and the communities and looked at everything. They are still calling, gathering more information, clarifying everything," Grant added.
Grant said that at this point, it is not about whether the districts should consolidate, it is about how to most effectively make the move.
"The consultants will provide us with their recommendations for where the high school and elementary school should each be located," Grant said.
The meeting will also provide a forum for public comment, and there will be an open floor at that time, said Grant.
"People are welcome to bring their thoughts, comments and concerns for discussion at the meeting," he said.
Following the meeting, a proposal will be put together for the two districts, which will be up for vote sometime in May.
If the proposal passes, the districts would spend one more year as individual districts, and would consolidate for the 2004-2005 school year.
Grant said that as with any change, it will take Blue Sky some time to get used to the idea of busing some of its students to KG.
"It is nice the way it is right now because we have K-12 all together in Rudyard. ... It will take some time to get used to (the busing) but I believe the gains in additional class offerings and educational opportunities will far outweigh the small inconvenience and will greatly benefit our students in the long run," he said.