Morrisville School Board president Damon Miller likens his predicament to being uncool at a middle-school dance.
“You have to have two to dance, and there’s no one coming to the dance with us at this time,” he said.
For three years, the Morrisville School District, a 2-square-mile district hugging the Delaware River across from Trenton has sought to merge with another area district.
The reasons are both economic and academic.
The Bucks County district has about a thousand students, 881 of whom attended the district’s own schools last year. It has one elementary school, one middle school and one high school.
The district faces the same pressures as many other Pennsylvania districts in recent years — rising teacher pension costs instituted by the state; cuts to state education funding; and the loss of federal stimulus dollars. And like so many other districts, Morrisville has increased its local taxes every year to try to recoup these losses.
However, Morrisville has some additional constraints, which its leaders say limit its ability to provide an equitable education.
Size is one factor, said Miller. The district has about 230 high school students. Larger districts can provide more diverse programming through economies of scale, he said. A 2013 report by Public Citizens for Children and Youth comparing school districts in Bucks County found that smaller districts have to spend more per student to provide the same level of instruction.
“The education opportunities are just not the same as districts that are larger,” said Miller.
Morrisville also has a higher proportion of economically disadvantaged students and students of color than Pennsbury, a school district that surrounds Morrisville on three sides and has 10 times the enrollment.
To make ends meet, said Miller, “the Morrisville School District has lost its library services, [and] its elementary students receive arts and physical education from their classroom teachers not specialists.”
He also said the school has switched to a “blended learning” model, relying partially on teachers and partially on online instruction. That allows a single teacher to teach students of many levels, as the school district can offer neither AP classes nor an honors track.
Pennsbury, Bristol Borough, Neshaminy, Council Rock and Bensalem school districts all declined to explore a merger with Morrisville, citing the accountability to their own students first and general school funding scarcity. Morrisville was similarly rejected in 1990, for the same request, when it attempted to force Pennsbury into a union.
Miller said unlike common misconception that the district would be a burden, Morrisville has things to offer any district considering a merger. Its building stock is in good shape, he said, and the hosting district would gain local millage revenue. Morrisville has the highest school millage rate in the county, amounting to about $9.5 million annually.
Only Bristol Township affirmed, in a letter dated May 11, that it is “interested in participating in a feasibility study to explore the possible merger or tuition relationship” with Morrisville. However, Bristol Township said it couldn’t commit — financially — to carrying out the feasibility study without more information from the state.
In a statement, Bristol Township school board president Angela Nober said combining forces could lead to more educational opportunities for students – like instituting STEM-focused classes for higher grades – in her district but that the discussions have not progressed beyond the inititial statement of interest.
Miller said there has been a commitment from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to help pay for the feasibility study.
According to spokeswoman Jessica Hickernell, “The department did tell the district that it would assist with the cost of the feasibility study when the district had an agreement with another district willing to consider a merger.”
In Pennsylvania (and neighbor New Jersey), school districts can merge only voluntarily; the state can’t force it. There has only been one voluntary merger in Pennsylvania’s history, between two districts in Beaver County near Harrisburg.
Miller said, for now, working with the state has been held up by ongoing budget gridlock in Harrisburg. “I’m hoping to follow up once their budget gets passed,” he said.
Next Wednesday, Morrisville students will return to a school without a state budget to plan on and, for now, without another school district to “dance” with.