By Ethan Bloomfield, Photos by PJ Marolt
Elementary school students in the Jackson City School District wake up on a Monday morning and make their way to school by bus, by car or on foot by 8:55. Whether Northview, Westview or Southview, each student reports to an elementary school built with their generation’s needs in mind. It wasn’t always this way for the district.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, funds for school districts are determined by a mix of state funds, federal funds and local property taxes. Disadvantaged school districts in the poorest counties of Ohio tend not to have property values as high as those in wealthy districts, generating less tax money.
Among the solutions for students to help bridge the gap between socioeconomic classes is that of school consolidation.
For many, consolidation means bigger, more well-funded schools, larger class sizes and increased quality of school facilities. For others, consolidation isn’t so simple.
Success in Jackson City Schools
In the past, school districts in Ohio tended to consolidate with each other. In the first half of the 20th century, the number of school districts was over three times what it is now; today, it is more common for schools to consolidate within their own districts.
Debby Crabtree, a retiree of the Jackson City School District and Director of Special Projects witnessed how this internal consolidation affected students and staff 20 years ago.
“What we actually had was a building project as a part of the Ohio School Facilities Program,” says Crabtree. “At the time, we had six elementaries, and we combined them so now we have three.”
Athens county had a controversial elementary school consolidation in 2021, which has seen success in bridging the socioeconomic divide among students in the district, according to a feature in New York Magazine in September of this year. With the benefit of hindsight, Crabtree outlined those successes, and some challenges, in her own district.
“Where we, at one time, had buildings with 150 students, we now have a building with 400 or 450 students,” says Crabtree, “and very often, buildings develop a personality … and it takes time to blend them into a new community.”
Crabtree was adamant that the coming-together of three different communities into one posed challenges in both attitudes and safety.
“Our country schools, the schools I was in, the doors didn’t even lock,” she says, “and to then begin to lock down buildings, have security procedures, ask parents to sign in and sign out, those were new to many of the parents.”
Overall, though, her convictions have not changed in two decades.
“[The schools] are doing great. They’ve had plenty of time [to integrate], and we’ve changed a generation,” says Crabtree. “For the students and the staff and their families, primarily, this is all they’ve ever known.”
Walnut Township’s Apprehension
In Fairfield County, Walnut Township Schools failed to pass three funding levies in 2014 and 2015, resulting in understaffing and underfunding for the 2015-2016 school year.
This led to public buzz about consolidating with neighboring district, Berne Union, according to an article from the Lancaster Eagle Gazette. The school denied rumors of consolidation, citing incongruence financially and with the infrastructure of the two districts.
When reached out to, Walnut Township Schools declined to comment.
Fairfield county, the home of Walnut township schools, has a poverty rate of 8.9% according to the Census Bureau, nearly four percentage points lower than the national average of 12.8%.
The school district receives over 60% of its funding from local income and real estate taxes according to the budgetary section of the school website, which, as of December 2022, would be over $3,000,000.
Conversely, Athens county, home of the recently consolidated elementary schools in the Athens City School District, has a poverty rate of over 20%. While poverty does not imply certain consolidation, it is one of many indicators a county can consider.
Consolidation or Not?
Understanding whether a district would benefit from consolidation is no easy task. For the elementary school students in Jackson county, there was a great need for expanded education opportunities and improved facilities. For those in Walnut Township, consolidation could have been a way through financial hardship, but was shown to be unnecessary for the district to succeed.
In a 2011 study by the Ohio School Board Association, the financial merits of school consolidation were not obvious. Touting “mixed” results, the study cited additional factors like expenditures per student as indicators of success.
As for Debby Crabtree, the conversation around consolidation might get murky, but the effects are crystal clear.
“When combining schools is discussed, I think it’s always promoted economically, like you’re saving money … You also get additional costs, like transportation for example … but the benefits, definitely, to me, are real.”