Why Ellwood and Riverside School Districts Should Merge

[Statements, opinion, and views expressed in this column are those of the author named and are not necessarily those of the EllwoodCity.org and Thought Process Enterprises team.]

A few years ago, the Ellwood City school board examined the possibility of merging with Riverside. The notion never gathered enough momentum to move beyond the idea stage.

With ever declining populations and an increasingly difficult financial situation for public education, I think that a merger will eventually become a necessity. It’s advantageous for the two districts to take the initiative and make a plan to merge within the next five years.

There are several excellent reasons why a Riverwood/Ellwoodside school would be beneficial, though there are several reasons why it would be extremely difficult.

Riverside became an entity 53 years ago, when Ellwood City had a booming steel economy and its population was too unwieldy to fit into one district. There were over 12,000 people in the Borough alone. Since 1960, the population has steadily decreased. There are fewer than 7,800 people now, so the reason for Riverside’s creation is now void.

According to the school district’s websites, Ellwood has about 2,000 students (including Votech) and Riverside has about 1,800, which means neither is diminutive. Both have been able to support their academics, facilities and extra-curricular activities under difficult circumstances.

That is actually more of a reason to merge than not. It wouldn’t be a healthy school district saving a dying school or two dying ones struggling to persevere. The merger would combine two strong schools to create something stronger than the sum of the parts.

The biggest apparent problem with merging is that the districts are in separate counties. However, a school district in Pennsylvania is an independent legal entity distinct from a county and many districts cross county lines. Actually, a very tiny portion of Ellwood school district is inside Beaver County already. In central Pennsylvania, where every county has about 38 people, school districts typically encompass multiple counties.

Unlike other possible mergers in the area, the two districts are already part of the same community. Most of Riverside is in the greater Ellwood area. The people within the two districts share the same jobs, churches and politics. The Ellwood City Ledger and we cover the two districts equally. Community events, such as the festival and Bizarre, belong to the greater community, as do the resources, such as the Borough’s and Riverside’s pool.

Ellwood students already communicate and participate together through social media and non-school sports, such as the Riverside Aqua Club of Ellwood City. Combining the school districts isn’t about bringing in outsiders, but about consolidating the resources and culture of a single community.

The biggest obstacle is an ideological sense of division that exists in parents’ minds. They have pride in Ellwood or Riverside and see the other as a rival. There is a sense of identity through the school, with its colors and mascots and pride in the academic and athletic achievements.

Riverside, as a district without a town, is culturally centered on the school itself. Take away that district, and there is no more Riverside community. The merger would inherently be more of an Ellwood absorbing Riverside, which is unacceptable to many parents.

Practically, merging would create an economically more viable district. There would be more diversity in non-core academics. Both schools have fared well in academic standings and a merger would only increase that by consolidating the excellent administration and faculty.

Athletically, both schools would benefit. Ellwood has no pool but has a better football stadium. Ellwood’s size puts it on the border between AA and AAA and several of our sports struggle to compete in AAA. Riverside has powerful AA teams and together, the new district could field competitive AAA teams.

This would result in some children sitting on the bench and instead of being starters. From my own experience, it’s better to be an alternate on a winning team than a starter on a losing team. Parents might not like it, but one of the most important lessons in life is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just aren’t good enough.

If a merger was decided, there’s no shortage of practical problems that would be the source of endless drama. What would the new school be called? What would the colors be? A mesh of blue and green? It’ll definitely be distinct, since many schools only use one color plus white.

Would it be possible to combine the faculty and administration without either having to lay off people or create useless positions? Who will the coaches be? Just because two coaches are both excellent and have a history of winning teams doesn’t mean they’ll be able to work together, even if they want to, simply because their styles are different.

I think the main reason people don’t want to merge is because they’re too proud to make compromises on those questions. However, I think we’ll inevitably have to answer them. The economy in this area isn’t getting better. The financial state of public education isn’t getting better. Sooner or later, the two school boards are going to have to have a serious conversation about the practicalities of merging.

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