School districts

THE ISSUE

The Eastern Lancaster County School District will no longer share its superintendent with Columbia’s schools, ending the first such partnership of its kind in the state, LNP reported last week. Superintendent Bob Hollister will return to Elanco full time beginning in January, officials in the Columbia School District announced at a school board meeting Sept. 7. Columbia must now find a new superintendent by Jan. 1.

It was a worthwhile experiment. And we hope the fact that it lasted only a year doesn’t discourage future sharing of resources or even consolidation of districts.

Columbia school board President Keith Combs told LNP correspondent Anne Marie Steele that he wished the one-year agreement, which began in the summer of 2016, could have been extended to a three-year term to “take advantage of the expertise we’ve received” from Hollister.

The reality is that Columbia needed Hollister more than Hollister and Elanco needed Columbia.

“Columbia was seeking more of my time, and the Elanco board was not comfortable with having me away more than what we already had in the pilot,” Hollister said.

From Elanco’s and Hollister’s perspective, that’s understandable.

We’re happy to hear Hollister say that he will remain available as a mentor to Columbia.

That’s a good thing because the financially struggling Columbia district needs help. Elanco will also continue to share technology, business and human resources services with Columbia at an annual cost of about $280,000, LNP reported.

The shared leadership agreement was unique for the area and was a result of Columbia’s financial difficulties. The idea was that sharing resources and a superintendent would both save money and help attract qualified leaders to work in the district. Columbia has had trouble finding and keeping a superintendent.

It was an innovative approach and one that we hope other districts throughout the county will consider.

One reason the Elanco-Columbia experiment may have been cut short was geography. The two districts are 30 miles apart. It’s difficult to manage one school district, much less two. And trying to manage one from 30 miles away proved especially challenging. The agreement did call for Hollister to spend four days per month in Columbia.

Chris Adams, superintendent for Hempfield School District, which borders Columbia, told LNP last year, after the agreement was announced, that school districts have “got to try to figure out ways to leverage resources to the best of our abilities.”

He’s right. Hempfield, for example, serves about 6,800 students. Columbia serves 1,300. Sharing resources, and personnel if possible, would seem to make sense.

We realize these are difficult waters to navigate. Different districts have different needs and priorities. But some level of consolidation presents an opportunity to eliminate wasteful spending and improve efficiency, which would benefit everyone.

If it saves taxpayers money and can improve the educational experience for students, it’s worth another try.

There are 16 separate school districts in Lancaster County (a 17th district, Octorara, serves students in both Lancaster and Chester counties). That’s a lot by any objective measure. Why there are so many school districts and whether some sort of attempt to regionalize education in the county would be worthwhile is a discussion for another day.

But we hope the Elanco-Columbia partnership — short-lived though it was — will not be viewed as a failure.

It was a valid attempt to make the most of limited resources and to streamline the management of school districts. It would be difficult to come up with an argument as to why this is a bad thing.

It did not work perfectly. Perhaps it was a little too ambitious to expect Elanco’s superintendent to manage Columbia from afar and still devote his full attention to his home district.

Still, it was a necessary experiment.

And no true innovation comes without some trial and error.

bit.ly/SchoolDistrictPartnership

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