When members of the public participating in a community forum recently were asked for ideas to improve the quality of life in Jefferson County, several mentioned public school consolidations.

There's been talk for years that the Madison and Southwestern schools should consider joining forces. But the idea has never gained any traction.

From an economist's perspective, consolidating some school districts makes perfect sense. Many districts face rising costs and declining enrollment. A merger could mean lower overhead and operating costs.

But there is much more to the debate than economics.

Now, Ball State University's Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) has weighed in, as reported in a story in the Anderson Herald-Bulletin.

A study, called "School Corporation Size and the Cost of Education," argues that the merger of Indiana's small K-12 schools districts will be necessary to reduce overhead and management expenses.

But, legislation introduced several years ago to force consolidation of schools with student populations of less than 1,000 students went nowhere. Madison Consolidated Schools has about 3,000 students; Southwestern Schools has roughly 1,300 students.

Michael Hicks, director of CBER, said a time is coming when school and community leaders may have no other alternative.

"Many of Indiana's school districts are facing dwindling enrollment at a time when costs of providing a quality education are increasing," Hicks said.

"At some point, we are going to have to look at ways to reduce the school districts' overhead while maintaining the ability to provide quality education in each community, a key to developing the state's economy," Hicks added.

The center determined in a 2010 study that consolidating school corporations to about 2,000 students - referred to as the minimum efficient corporation size - would lower the cost of providing public education.

The truth is a lot of school districts don't want to lose their autonomy. Citizens view local schools as a community asset, and some fear they would lose that "hometown" connection.

Continuing to grow the quality of education our children receive must remain the priority as school districts face economic challenges.

Still, a sense of urgency does exist to "think about education a little more thoughtfully than we have," Hicks said, because in the coming years county-to-county population migration will likely be driven by school quality.

It's time for Jefferson County's school corporations and residents to begin a serious discussion about whether consolidation is right for us.