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State School Board Looks Into Merging County School Districts

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State School Board Chairman Bill Cobey and State Superintendent June Atkinson are exploring using a new authority that allows the board to merge adjacent county school districts.

Atkinson said in Thursday's State Board of Education meeting that she has been meeting with local superintendents to  discuss the possibility of consolidating services across county districts with low student populations.

"My conversation has been 'What could help you be more efficient as far as shared services?'"

Cobey says consolidating services in sparsely populated county districts could save taxpayer money and improve services for students with special needs.

"When you’re in a county that doesn’t have a lot of students, it’s hard to have a lot of specialization. Different people have to wear different hats," Cobey said.

The new school board power comes from a provision in this year’s budget. Cobey says he doesn't know who put the provision in, but that legislators he's spoken with supported the provision as a potential cost-saving measure.

"I know from interactions that I’ve had with state legislators that they’re concerned with the high cost of educating students in the counties where there is not much population and not a high student count," Cobey said.

Cobey would not disclose which districts he and Atkinson have their eyes on, but he said county districts with some of the lowest student populations would be likely candidates.

"They're concerned with the high cost of educating students in the counties where there is not much population and not a high student count."

The two county districts with the lowest enrollments are Tyrrell County Schools and Hyde County Schools. The adjacent districts each had less than 600 students in the 2013-2014 school year.

While districts are being looked into, Cobey said he doesn't see any districts on the "fast-track" for a merger.

"I don’t want any county school district to be concerned that anything is going to happen quickly," Cobey cautioned. "Everything that we do will be discussed. We will move carefully and hopefully with their cooperation and with their support."

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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