The Mega District

A few more thoughts on school district consolidation. Mark Tallsman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, says that imposing a 10,000 student minimum size on school districts might require a district in northwest Kansas of 18 counties and 16,500 square miles. Assuming such a district was a perfect square, that would mean a district 128 miles long, on any side. (Assuming that all schools were centrally located and a student traveled in a straight line, the longest ride, from any of the four quarters, would be 92 miles.)

He’s probably right. I did some calculations of my own before I saw those remarks. I had wondered how big a district would have to be. Take a look at this county map, available on the KSDE website.  Take the nine counties that form a near-square shape: Cheyenne to Decatur, then south to Gove, west to Wallace, and back north to Cheyenne. In that territory, you’ve got 9,071 square miles (a square with 95-mile sides) and 4,300 students.

That doesn’t sound too attractive, so perhaps a smaller limit would be more appropriate for sparsely populated regions. Keep in mind that this assumes that schools will be moved to the center of each mega-district, which may not necessarily happen.

For my part, it seems like the literature suggests somewhere from 3,000 to 6,000 students are optimal, at least within the current configuration of 2,000 to 6,000 students. That means that if the Legislature considers consolidation moves for the smaller districts, it also ought to consider breaking up the larger districts, such as  259 Wichita, 512 Shawnee Mission, and 233 Olathe, each with over 25,000 students.

You can see a full list of districts and their 2008-09 enrollment here. Kansas had 295 districts, with:

  • 129 districts with 500 or fewer students
  • 112 with 400 or fewer
  • 78 with 300 or fewer
  • 35 with 200 or fewer
  • 9 with 100 or fewer

Here’s one other thing to keep in mind when thinking about district consolidation. When school board members talk about consolidation, it’s hard for them to keep the bigger picture of the state in mind. In fact, it’s in their job to think narrowly, to have utmost in their minds the preservation of the institutions they know best–the school district they govern, the schools it contains, and the administrators and staff it employs. This may or may not lead to bad decision-making processes, but it’s going to be there.

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