Governor Ed Rendell's suggestion that Pennsylvania should undergo another round of school district consolidation has reignited the debate as to whether fewer and bigger is better than more and smaller.
It is a debate that has raged for years over Pennsylvania's other units of local government: municipalities such as townships, boroughs and cities. The commonwealth has 5,334 such local governments ranging in size from the 1,450,000 residents who live in the City of Philadelphia, to small boroughs with less than 1,000 residents. Pennsylvania's tradition of local government can be traced back to the colonial era, when local communities were run by New England-style town hall meetings wherein all the residents showed up to debate and vote upon issues of common concern.
The tradition of local government is one to which Pennsylvanians cling. Over the years, polls conducted by the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research have shown that overwhelmingly local government is viewed by voters as the most responsive and cost efficient. This despite repeated efforts by state government and often times business groups who continually push for municipal consolidation.
Why do Pennsylvanians love their local governments so much? A big factor is identity. Think about where you live. If you live in a small town or community do you tell people you are "from" your town, or that you are "from" the nearest big city? If you are from Chester, you don't tell people you live in Philadelphia. If you live in Greensburg, you don't say you are from Pittsburgh. If you reside in Camp Hill, you don't tell folks you are from Harrisburg.
And then there is the issue of access and accountability. The old town meeting concept worked because people had a direct voice in the affairs of their community. Since local governments provide the services most people use on a day-to-day basis — like trash pick-up, parks, roads, police protection — we like being able to complain to someone who will listen, or have a say in who and how these services are provided.
Smaller units of government also increase dramatically public interaction with elected officials. If you live in a small town or township chances are you know at least one member of borough council or one member of your board of township supervisors or commissioners. They are your neighbors. They go to church with you, shop at the same grocery store, and their kids go to school with your kids. Local officials tend to be the most responsive because they are the most accessible.
A recent Lincoln Institute survey of township supervisors found little buy-in to the argument that consolidating municipalities would save money. Sixty-seven percent said they did not think that regionalization or consolidation of municipalities would bring about cost savings. In fact, many argue they already work together with neighboring municipalities when it is beneficial. Eighty-six percent of the townships participating in the survey said they have inter-municipal agreements.
And, while Philadelphia, Harrisburg and the state's other biggest cities are looking for a federal bail-out to survive the current economic recession, townships are holding up rather well. Seventy-four percent said they have not had to reduce services in order to avoid raising taxes and 68% said they have a "rainy day" fund set aside to help them weather any economic storm. Further, despite the economic recession, 40% report there has been some business growth in their municipality, and 35% have seen more manufacturing activity.
In fact, the supervisors told the Lincoln Institute their biggest problems are not financial. Roadway conditions and traffic problem top their list of concerns, followed by low commercial tax base, aging infrastructure, sprawl and affordable housing. Supervisors are also concerned that some of their local functions, such as planning and zoning, will be co-opted by counties or the state. Eighty-three percent want to keep that at the local level.
Another reason township supervisors resist consolidation is to protect what they see as a superior quality of life in their municipalities. Eighty percent told the Lincoln Institute that high crime rates are causing people to flee the state's cities, 72% said high taxes in cities are a problem, and 61% cite poor schools in cities as a reason why their populations are moving out.
The bottom line is Pennsylvania's system of many medium and small sized municipalities is working financially, administratively, and provides a sense of community to residents. As the debate over school district consolidation heats up, it would be wise to take some of the same factors that make Pennsylvanians satisfied with their local governments into consideration when deciding how large our school districts should become.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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